Feature Interview – John Lill on Beethoven – “I was told that in my recital last night there was a couple in the front row snogging, which is the last effect I thought I would have!”

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Interview date: 3 October 2013, London

John Lill. Photograph: © Sophie Baker

As he approaches his seventieth birthday next year, on 17 March 2014, John Lill is embarking once again on a cycle of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas. He is playing the cycle concurrently at Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, where he completes the cycle in May, and at London’s Cadogan Hall, London, ending in February. The Manchester cycle had just begun when I met him to talk about Beethoven, how his view of the composer has shaped over the years, and a thorough and very interesting series of insights into concert preparation.

Lill is an affable gentleman, with a twinkle of humour at many a turn, which may well explain why he appears much younger than his approaching milestone! Beethoven in particular fires his imagination, and he is extremely happy to be beginning the cycle of sonatas again. “I’ve done about ten complete cycles around the world, but the last cycle was 25 years ago, which tells you my age, doesn’t it?! It’s nice to refresh them in a thorough way. My first concert was aged nine, and even that was Beethoven. I still refuse to specialise though, because I think there’s so much other wonderful stuff to play. It’s like meeting people really – the wider your experiences in life, the better your music becomes, because it is a reflection of life and more.”

The living and breathing aspect of music is a theme to which Lill often returns in the course of our discussion. “Some pianists, all they talk about is keyboard technique, which is so narrow and boring. Life is more than keyboard technique! Besides, they treat the piano as a percussion instrument, and it’s not – it’s an orchestra. When I play I always feel that it’s my job to transform it into an orchestra, with all the colours available. As with ‘Les adieux’, which I played last night, if you’ve got a held note with a crescendo on it you can be an illusionist to the public, and I’m sure they catch the sense of crescendo by the manner in which you play it. You have to be an illusionist because it’s a percussion machine, but one of your jobs is to turn it into an orchestra.”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) in 1803 by Christian Hornemann. Painting on ivory

It is an aspect of live performance that Lill warms to. “Making recordings takes out the crucial dynamic of the public, which I think you need, and it’s also nice to walk the plank, and have one chance to get it right. Then if it goes well you have only yourself to be pleased with, and if it goes badly then it’s entirely your fault. That’s why I prefer a committee of two with one absent. I think Churchill said that!”

Given his last encounter with the Sonatas was some time ago, has Lill returned to Beethoven with a different view? “It’s similar, I think. I play Beethoven all the time, every year, but not the complete set. There are some Sonatas – I don’t know why – that I only seem to do when I’m doing a cycle, so they are really quite new to me again. They are always in my mind, but to get them absolutely polished is another challenge, which has to be done. There are differences but I think it is about evolution, as you live life, as you get older. The experience of life, and learning other repertoire, hopefully enhances the music that you already know. There are differences, of tempo and rubato, and some things are a bit stricter, but mostly things are a bit freer. The same with the tempos – some are a bit quicker, some are slower. It’s more to do with atmosphere.”

Lill expands on his point. “I think tempo is the single most important aspect in music, because it’s the one where you’re showing the strength of the structure, and the right tempo is that which you must change least. I think it was Claudio Arrau who said that ‘it’s the amount of experience that can be injected into any given time’, and that makes up a very convincing tempo. It’s vital to know the tempo request in the Beethoven Sonatas, because it’s the closest thing the composer has to showing the mood of the piece. So often you get Andantes that are taken much too slowly and Allegrettos that are taken Prestissimo. Some composers are very fussy about them, Brahms being an example. An interesting component of that subject is that when Beethoven was asked about what the tempo should be in the slow movement of the opus10/number 3 Sonata, and it’s a very serious mark, Largo e mesto, his answer was very interesting. He said there should be ten different speeds in this movement, only to be noticed by the most sensitive ear. In other words, it mustn’t be noticed by the vast majority of people, but it must accompany the music in question. Even with dynamics, and certainly with length and line, and the mood of the music, the tempo has to be modified very slightly. That’s why I’m against metronome marks because I think they are misleading. I think when Beethoven was given a metronome he threw it out the window after a while!”.

When we meet, Lill has performed the first three of his Bridgewater Hall concerts, and is on the verge of beginning the Cadogan Hall series (a link to Classical Source’s review of the first recital below). Does it present a difficult challenge performing two cycles concurrently? “Before you start preparing for any series of monumental works, the biggest challenge is how to organise the preparation. With thirty-two Sonatas, and God knows how many notes, you can’t do them all at once, you have to work on certain segments at certain times. So really I worked in that way, and when you’re going back it’s like a medical check-up, especially if you’ve done them very recently.”

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)

The venues play an important part in Lill’s approach to performance. “The Cadogan Hall seems very small when compared with the Bridgewater Hall, and therefore it will affect interpretation in quite a large way. The acoustic is important, the piano is important, and even the thickness of people’s clothing can make a difference to the acoustic! When you’re rehearsing in an empty hall it is quite a different sound from the evening. What you do is learn as much of the score as you can, and you practice to get it as right as you can. Then when you walk on you just let it happen. It’s not necessarily the same but it just has to happen. It has to be inevitable, because if you’re not convinced by what you’re doing then the public can’t be. The less you get in the way as a performer the more I like it. If someone says to me ‘You’re a fine pianist’, it’s very kind, but if they say ‘What a marvellous piece of music!’, then that means so much more, because I’ve not been in the way as an interpreter. That is a word I have learned to hate, ‘interpretation’, because it means you are doing something, you are fiddling around with it.”

At the same time, he recognises that human input is inevitable. “It’s like an electric current, you’ve got to have positive and negative. Music is one of those only, and you have got to provide the other, but the closer it is to making it a perfect copy, the better. It should never be mechanical of course. It’s very interesting with the Beethoven Sonatas. Purists would say that a request like espressivo, for example, should not affect speed. But in opus 109, in the second movement, Beethoven puts poco espressivo, and then four bars later in tempo. That’s interesting!”.

Talk around Beethoven Sonata Cycles is perhaps inevitably focussed on the later works, but Lill firmly agrees that the earlier Sonatas are just as difficult to get right. “Yes. And a Mozart concerto can be far more demanding than Rachmaninov’s Third. It’s not the number of notes, it’s the content, the hidden meanings as well. Sometimes it is much more difficult because every note is so clear, so it has got to be perfectly measured. If you’re playing loads of chords in Rachmaninov or Brahms then the sense of balance is not quite so critical, so sometimes it is easier to play clusters rather than single notes.”

The role of silence is also crucial, particularly in Beethoven. “It is for any composer. Silence to me is unheard sound, and atmosphere cannot suddenly happen, it requires preparation and time. Your job is to make sure that somebody misses a heart-beat in your concert. Not more than that, we hope! I was told that in my recital last night in Manchester there was a couple in the front row snogging, which is the last effect I thought I would ever have! It was during the very first of the Sonatas.”

When preparing the order of performance in his cycle, Lill had several elements to consider. “I wanted each concert to be chronological within itself. Purists might criticise me for not doing the cycle chronologically, but stylistically I think that is a bit limited, even with regards to Beethoven, so each concert is an overview of his development. I’m finishing with the last five Sonatas as the last works in those concerts, and I think that works well.” Lill’s approach means audiences can attend a single concert and effectively get an example from each period of Beethoven’s output. “I think it is better that way because anyone who dips in will get an overview of his life, because not everyone will be coming to all the concerts. My responsibility is really to try to get back to the inspiration that gripped the composer at the time of conception. This is why I think composers are not necessarily the best performers, because inspiration is long gone, and they are revising it as though they are a performer of their own work. The fact they wrote it is marvellous, but the inspiration only happens at that time. When Beethoven was writing the Missa Solemnis, for instance, he hadn’t eaten for days, and he was living in a different world. When he came back he didn’t have much recollection of the details.”

Lill then considers the instruments Beethoven was writing for. Was he consciously writing for the piano of his day or that of the future? “I think the latter. His inspiration and imagination were so vast, and the instruments were very limited in his day. That’s why he often wanted to go higher or lower and he had to compromise. You have to bear that in mind now, you can’t be too free, because some things sound ridiculous if they go too low or too high, but sometimes it is kind to play the extra octave, because you think that is what he would have wanted. In opus 54 for example, in the second movement Allegretto, there is a series of bass octaves where he has to stop when he gets to the F. I like to go down to the E, and then stop.”

Lill returns to an earlier question. “You mentioned how I feel about the Sonatas now compared to how I felt years ago. I would say the music itself means much more to me. I knew them – I thought – as well as I do now, but the same passages mean a huge amount more and have even more possibilities. That is the magic of music and getting older, music always gives you much more than you could ever give to it. I’ve sweated buckets, we all have, but in the end it gives you more and that’s a permanent thing of the mind. Because of his indomitable will, when Beethoven had the tragedy of deafness happening to him, he could have either resigned from music, or take it by the throat and rise above it, which he did fantastically well. It’s a lesson. It’s not so much whether you receive hardship or tragedy; it’s the way you react to it which can develop you. That is one of the lessons of life. A lot of people whinge and whine because something isn’t quite right: well prove yourself by overcoming it! It’s an opportunity to develop.”

John Lill. Photograph: © Roman Goncharov

Did returning to the Sonatas force a change of opinion? “Yes, even in the Sonatas I play more often. Things come to mind – different fingerings, different stresses, rubato, aspects and moods. The basic style is similar but thank goodness there is that freshness that still helps it to happen.” Lill’s views continue to evolve, even though he started performing Beethoven when just nine years old. “I think I was playing the ‘Appassionata’ then. I’ve got a recording of me playing it when I was fourteen, and clearly in those days I took everything very quickly! It was very scantily learned as well, but the facility was there. Later on though, whenever I saw Allegro ma non troppo I always skidded to a halt because of that caution! I think I’ve now emerged in between those two.

Is the Sonata Cycle deliberately chosen to lead up to Lill’s seventieth-birthday because it is the body of work that means most to him? “Yes, but also I had requests from both centres to do it. You don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth, and they are great works. The Bridgewater is my favourite hall in Britain as a recitalist. I think it has a fantastic acoustic. The Cadogan is extremely good too. The piano has been renovated and it is extremely good. My one requirement with the piano is that it has to be a clear tone. The voicing has to be good, too, and so seldom do you find that with pianos, especially the two octaves above middle-C. Some notes are too quiet, some are too bright, and you’ve got to keep a mental map of the characteristics of each of those notes. In addition to the music you memorise you have got to know the characteristics of those notes.”

Lill’s preparation is uniform. “My ideal is to arrive about three hours before the performance, so I get used to the hall and the vibes of the place. When I used to play quintets with the Amadeus Quartet they would often arrive just ten minutes before the concert started, and I couldn’t understand that! I like to arrive early, then to get the piano position right and the lighting. I don’t like brilliant spots in the face, those are for pop concerts! I prefer that, to suit the seriousness, although some Beethoven is incredibly funny! I like to do no more than one hour, but I like to go through the whole programme, playing it or in my head. It sounds chaotic, but it’s an overview. Then I like to have a couple of hours of total silence, with no interruptions. I might have a little something to eat, then wash and change, keep it very quiet, and then go on as if it’s a continuation of what you’ve been doing. You actually started in your mind a while before the concert. There are always exceptions – and it is more popular to do pre-concert interviews these days – but I prefer not to do that. You do it to show you are semi-human, but I prefer not to spoil the countdown period.”

Is there any one of the 32 that holds a special significance within this? “Some that I have already played in the current cycle, I have kicked myself for not playing them more often. The ones I play most regularly are about a third of the cycle, and they are the ones I’ve got used to playing most in public. They are all masterpieces. That said there are some extraordinary works, and I think of opus 90 and opus 54 as very strange works in their own way, while opus 78 is very unusual too. The penultimate Sonata, opus 110, is perhaps the most removed of all, and for that reason it is probably the most difficult to bring off successfully, because it is so lacking in instant things. It’s very deep and wayward. It is an incredible journey, but you never get tired of it, and at the end of the cycle I always feel like I could start again, because the music is still fresh. There are not many composers whose music can hold a whole evening, but Beethoven does so handsomely!”

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