A second review of Cordelia Williams’ concert in Portsmouth’s Menuhin Room

Part of a new series of Saturday lunchtime recitals in Portsmouth’s Menuhin Room.

Cordelia Williams, 29 April 2023

As we emerged from the Menuhin Room last Saturday, we were all aware that we had been privileged to enjoy the performance of a pianist who is very much on her way to a most distinguished career. 

Cordelia gave us cogent and helpful introductions to each of her chosen works in an enormously demanding programme, the length of most full recitals. 

In the first half, her juxtaposition of Prokofiev’s Visions Fugitives with Schumann’s Waldszenen was inspired. Both are sets of short pieces but they come from different worlds. The 20 Prokofiev pieces have kaleidoscopic changes of mood and a vast tonal palette while exploring every technical possibility that the piano can afford. Cordelia’s variety of volume and colour had an imaginative scope beyond any other performance I have heard. We were mesmerised and shaken in turns by her colour and intensity.

From the whirlwind of the Prokofiev we could not have chosen a richer contrast than Schumann’s portrayal of the natural world. He famously identified the contrasting sides of his personality as Florestan (introvert) and Eusebius (extrovert) and both are present in Waldszenen. The beauty of the forest was a background to glimpses of a huntsman’s life, with hints of fear and death in a blood-red flower, sunny landscapes beyond the forest, merry-making in a bucolic inn, mysterious prophecies in the song of a strange bird until all was resolved in a wistfully contented farewell. Cordelia’s empathy with Schumann is apparent, whether in the warmth of her cantabile or her delight in sharing the wealth of emotion so typical of this great Romantic composer.

These two works would have been the total of most lunchtime concert offerings.  But after a short interval Cordelia plunged us into the dramatic beauty of Schubert’s late C minor sonata D 958.  Written with his two other transcendent sonata masterpieces in the last three months of Schubert’s short life, this sonata seems to contain all human experience, whether in the stormy first movement, the contrasts of acceptance and anguish within the slow movement, the temporary respite of the graceful Menuetto before the plunge into the hectically driven terror of the last movement‘s Dance of Death.

This performance was so potently tragic that we mere listeners were deeply moved.  But after a very necessary break Cordelia was back in our ordinary world to help three master-class participants.  Immediately she created a friendly and informal atmosphere.  Always practical in the short time available, she pinpointed ways in which the performances of their Mendelssohn, Rachmaninov and Debussy pieces could be improved by slow and focused practice on vital details.  While she helped one player find the easiest and most relaxed posture when playing, another was encouraged to imagine and re-create the sounds of a Spanish evening. 

We can only hope that her memory of playing in the Menuhin Room aged 9 in a past Portsmouth Festival will prompt her to play for us again.

Diana Swann

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