It is a special sort of piano player who can be equally convincing in Scriabin, Schubert and Schumann but Williams is of that elevated order. This is wonderful stuff.
A lot of music-making is about making decisions – which note to emphasise in a phrase, whether to pull back or push on with tempo or dynamics. Time after time, Williams’ decision-making in the Schubert had me purring with pleasure. Her decision-making also has one eye firmly focused on the long view of the movement and the piece as a whole. Her performance of the strange un-minuet-like minuet is a marvel. Even the great names amongst Schubertians seem a little perplexed by this fugitive music. Perhaps it is Williams’ night time theme that helps her unlock the way the uneven phrases interlock so convincingly as though an insomniac Schubert were facing his demons in the wee small hours. Whatever the prompt, Williams catches the mood peculiarly well both here and in the finale. In not straining to find high tragedy, she brings the music closer in character to the other two of Schubert’s last piano sonatas. There is the bitter-sweet tang. There are the fleeting moments of sensual delight and of joy mixed with deep sadness and nostalgic regret. It all passes under her attentive fingers. The first two movements are just as good; this is one of the great performances of this sonata and I hope it gets due consideration and doesn’t get lost in this collection. Williams has already shown her affinity for Schubert on her 2014 disc of the Impromptus, including a sublime account of D935 No. 3, but this is even finer. I certainly am panting for her to record the other late Schubert sonatas.
If her account of the Schubert achieves greatness, her account of that black sheep amongst Schumann’s piano music, Gesänge der Frühe, qualifies as a stunning revelation. Williams seems to be communing with Schumann’s troubled spirit. This is music that could only have been written by someone who has only just made it through the dark night of the soul to the uneasy relief of the dawn. Williams finds astonishing beauty in these pieces that had me shaking my head in wonder. The dawn is, of course, the destination of the theme of the disc but I was moved by the way she evokes how we are changed by the experience of the night, whether literally through sleeplessness, or as a restive child, or metaphorically.
…the highest praise for Williams’ consummate artistry. This is not some vapid thematic collection designed solely to massage the performer’s ego. Every piece here is delivered with the utmost care and attention to musical matters first. This is what enables her to deliver such a thoroughly convincing collection, with the Schubert and Schumann touching real greatness.
I will end this review where I began by asking again – why is Cordelia Williams not better known?
David McDade, MusicWeb International, Oct 2021