As he approaches his seventy-fifth birthday (March 17), John Lill shows no signs of slowing down. In Liverpool he played the Tchaikovsky on Saturday night and then gave a demanding recital the following afternoon. The two venues are first-rate, both with fine acoustics, St George’s being a resplendent neoclassical circular room where Charles Dickens gave many of his readings.
It is barely credible that Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote Schauspiel Overture at the age of fourteen. Its shimmering opening immediately revealed the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic as having an arresting individual sound. Michael Seal has enormous physical presence on the rostrum, matched by his pinpoint clarity of direction. In the Korngold, Seal restlessly drove forwards so that, even when material is thin or repetitive, attention was held; Seal hit the climaxes with conviction and captured perfectly the elusive tone (playful or portentous?) of the work.
Gary Carpenter’s Ghost Songs received its third performance (the two previous outings were in November with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Thomas Søndergård). I am hard pressed to think of a new work that has made such a dramatic first impression. First, this is a luscious sparkling orchestral work, generously written for each player. Then there is the sheer thrill of witnessing the next generation of music-lovers on stage, over eighty children and teenagers singing. Ghost Songs is a setting of poems by Marion Angus, and one by Robert Louis Stevenson (On Some Ghostly Companions at a Spa). Carpenter conjures up unearthly sounds and colours, at the full range of what is possible to explore extremes of light and dark. The six poems are tightly bound together not only by their mystic themes but also musically, with melodies in one appearing or reappearing spectrally in another, all underscored with fragments of Scottish folk tunes. For the most part, one could make sense of the words without reference to the text, a testament to the composer and to the disciplined singing. The choirs sang with a chillingly innocent plaintive frisson. ‘On Some Ghostly Companions at a Spa’ was suitably disturbing, with a madcap dancing orchestra possessed by demonic rhythms. The piece grips from start to finish, though it was a shame that clapping came at the end of each section.
The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was the perfect conclusion, especially when played with such relish and dazzling virtuosity, the chorus-members transfixed by it all.
In this performance of the Tchaikovsky, John Lill played with a full plush tone, with plenty of verve, yet eschewing any look-at-me pyrotechnics. The RLPO shook off any semblance of over-familiarity with the work and played as though its life depended on it. Seal drew out fabulous colours, with several players making startling contributions, notably flautist Cormac Henry. In the second movement Lill skittled along infectiously in the lively middle section and, in so doing, brought further freshness to the work. That said, there was at times a degree of caution in some of the bravura passages (those quadruple octaves), but Lill always transmitted a sense of occasion – and enjoyment.
In the recital Beethoven’s so-called ‘Moonlight’ Sonata began with an Adagio sostenuto as slow as I’ve heard. I’m not sure that I liked it fully, but Lill’s control of the harmonies (very exposed at this tempo) was undeniably seamless. In the Allegretto, so often glossed over, Lill brought a lifetime’s experience to exploring the unease in the syncopations. It all made for a performance of insight and, in the tempestuous Finale, Lill showed that less is more.
Prokofievs Sixth Piano Sonata was not here the electrifying shocker it arguably should be. Lill’s conception was altogether more lyrical and considered, than bleak or vehement as in the Russian tradition. That said, Lill excelled in the voicing and textures to be found and brought a gnawing sense that perhaps there are other ways to appreciate this great work.
The second half found Lill at his most introspective, not least in Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, that endless treasure trove of miniatures. Again and again, Lill revealed how much can be done without fuss or point-making. ‘Träumerei’ worked its tear-inducing magic, and this whole account will stay long in the memory.
The Chopin sequence was well-chosen and wholly satisfying, revelatory and subtly alert to points of detail. In the Nocturne’s central section, Lill followed the crescendo markings precisely, such that the piece grew as an inevitable whole. After such an exceptional event, it was pure bad manners that so many people got up to leave as soon as the applause had begun. It’s just about understandable late-evening, last trains and the like, but at 5 o’clock it was a poor show. Not unreasonably, Lill offered no encore.