These first releases on compact disc capture John Lill in Brahms, recorded when he was in his mid-twenties, the Concerto at the Finals of the 1970 Tchaikovsky Competition, when Lill was triumphant, sharing the First Prize with Vladimir Krainev.
Lill has been a constant champion of Brahms’s two Piano Concertos, which he went on to record in the studio with James Loughran and the Hallé Orchestra. This Moscow account (first issued on a Deutsche Grammophon LP in 1971 as 2530 111) is then a souvenir from when Lill was catapulted to fame. It opens with a fruity-sounding horn solo to herald from Lill a leonine, poised and confident account, dynamic and thrilling, a real performance that does not betray any sense of stress given the occasion (when he would also have played the Competition’s mandatory Tchaikovsky No.1).
This reading of Brahms’s mighty and technically challenging four-movement Concerto is lively without eschewing the music’s grandeur. An amorous cello solo introduces the third-movement Andante which gives way to emotional volatility and then the most personal introspection, following which the Finale strides and dances, then dashes to the finishing post.
Lill has broadened and deepened his responses to this music, but in Moscow all those years ago his engaging and persuasive playing easily withstands the close balance the piano is given, although the orchestra is well in the picture, too, and if the strings can be on the thin side there is no doubting the vibrant accompaniment cued by Gennadi Rozhdestvensky’s conducting. The audience is very enthusiastic and it seems clear that the Jury (chaired that year by Emil Gilels) made the correct decision, although this Concerto was but one of numerous feats Lill would have given en route to the Finals.
However, Lill had already been issued on the famed Yellow Label. The Brahms Variations and Piano Pieces were released on DG 2530 059. Interesting to note that the sessions were produced by Norrie Paramor (1914-79), more associated with popular music as a composer for films (including British comedies), an arranger, band leader, pianist and conductor and the producer of records by Cliff Richard (with and without The Shadows), Ruby Murray, Eddie Calvert, Helen Shapiro, Frank Ifield and others.
There is nothing to complain about in Lill’s renditions of Brahms, which are well-recorded, for they are wholesome and focused interpretations, the required devilish technique in place to illuminate the Paganini Variations (the Theme also stated at the start of Book II), and with the Opus 76 Piano Pieces (a collection of Capriccios and Intermezzos) being serious of intent without overlooking wit, charm or beauty.
It is now obvious that Lill’s selfless and insightful artistry was already in place when he was a young man, something matured over the years and thankfully continuing. I imagine these two CDs are priced as one.