Skip to content


Classics at Greyfriars
Published on Saturday, 13 August 2011

4 stars

Greyfriars Kirk (venue website)
12-13, 15-19, 22-23, 25-26 Aug, 5:45pm-6:45pm, 10:30pm-11:30pm; 24 Aug, 5:45pm-6:45pm
Reviewed by Lee Zhao

 Family-friendly. Suitable for all ages.

The venues for this year's Edinburgh International Festival have one notable omission: Greyfriars Kirk. Whatever the reason for its absence, Greyfriars has responded in turn with one of the most ambitious series of classical music recitals on the Fringe to date: the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and string quartets.

The early evening concerts will feature acclaimed Welsh pianist Llyr Williams, who not only brings an immense talent but also experience: he has toured with the complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle before.

What struck me instantly was his control. Williams is in total command of everything: every note and every rest. Indeed, it was how Williams managed to make even the pauses speak to me that made his performance of the Pathétique Sonata one of the greatest I've ever had the pleasure to hear.  What makes this all the more special is that, with a complete cycle, it's very tempting to play it safe with a conservative interpretation; the fact that Williams seems to find something new is just astounding. And I guess it goes without saying that he was also technically flawless.

The second recitals in the daily double bills feature the Heath String Quartet, performing the complete Beethoven string quartets in a late-night slot. These are some the most important works ever written for the string quartet and his late quartets are, in my humble opinion, completely unparalleled to this day in their sheer scope and emotional gravity.

The Heath String Quartet opened the series with the late Op. 130 quartet with the revised ending. (The original Grosse Fuge was so immense, that on critical advice, Beethoven substituted it and published it as a separate work on its own – which as it happens will be performed in the final concert of the series.) The group is youthful and it shows in their sound: exciting, vibrant and full of life, with the Presto second movement especially effervescent.

However, their leader, Oliver Heath, was guilty of the odd intonation slip. He also seemed to lose his crisp tone during some the more frantic passages. And the sombre, funereal, Cavatina fifth movement left me feeling rather cold, emotionally speaking. Overall, the performance felt a little incomplete and I left slightly underwhelmed, which is sad given the Op. 130 even without the Grosse Fuge is a monumentally extraordinary piece of music.

Certainly the complete piano sonata series will promise to be a highlight of Edinburgh's classical music scene for not only this festival season, but this calendar year; it is a compulsory ticket for any classical music aficionado. If you don’t rate yourself as an aficionado – well, I'm of the opinion that everyone should see at least one of the Beethoven piano sonatas (and one of his late quartets) once in their life, and this is as good an opportunity as you're ever going to get. I have every confidence that all the piano sonatas are in safe hands with Williams.

As for the venue, Greyfriars Kirk is almost the perfect setting for this tandem complete cycle. I say “almost” because there is, on occasion, a high-pitched squeak from an unidentified source. Let’s hope whatever is causing it is promptly oiled, since it’s the only blemish on an otherwise lovely acoustic.

<< The Ducks   Superbard and the Sexy Qu... >>