John Lill – A 60th-Birthday Declaration

Written by: Colin Anderson

John Lill gives a recital in London’s Royal Festival Hall on 14 March at 3.30 (link below)

It’s been a pleasure getting to know John Lill. We first met last December at London’s Henry Wood Hall when he made an impressive Schumann CD (Classics for Pleasure 5858992) – John giving real performances with a poise and experience that meant editing was minimal. Such playing made one sit up. John corroborates thoughts that he’s “still evolving and still improving.” Not bad for a chap who won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1970. “You can never be satisfied with yourself, ever: always be your severest critic.”

Those sessions were not only musically productive but also memorable for the banter between John, producer John Boyden and engineer Tony Faulkner. “They’re old friends. The light-hearted hysteria, or even insults, can help the serious side. So it is with one’s playing. The wider the range the better, and the wider the imagination – because imagination is all you’ve got when you walk on to that stage. You’ve got to be completely convincing.”

John Lill turns 60 on 17 March. Three days earlier he gives a Royal Festival Hall recital. “It’s a new programme, fairly predictable as far as the composers are concerned, except the Schumann (Faschingsschwank aus Wien) is new to me and the Brahms I haven’t played for years. It’s a fairly cheerful first half, mostly lyrical.” Then Prokofiev’s Toccata is followed by Brahms’s Op.117 pieces – “light relieve, these are three lullabies” – and Beethoven’s Appassionata, “which deserves the title; it is passionate and a very great work.” If these composers are indeed echt-Lill, including Mozart (his wonderful F major sonata, K332), as John says, “what’s happened recently is that there’s been an inflow of very new ideas, a new freedom and freshness, in music I’ve been playing for many years.”

And John’s been performing in public for 50 years. “I was obsessed about music. I picked out tunes on a neighbour’s piano, a beaten-up old upright, which I was smashing the hell out of. I was a little brat. Apparently I couldn’t be removed from that stool. I was also interested in painting – my father was a very good amateur cartoonist – and I caught some of his talent; I won, I think, a Daily Mirror prize when I was eight. That was an interesting phase but then music took over decisively.”

Visiting John at his London home recently was to discover further his warmth and wit, his love of comedy (including The Goons, Round the Horne and Hancock) and electronic gadgets, and his deep concerns for wildlife and the lowering of cultural standards. “When I prepare for a concert I like to do it very well physically and mathematically. Then I have an hour or two of solitude when I empty my mind of all that earthbound trivia and make it receptive to forces that I know enter and work through you. These can enter any person, but the artificiality of modern life, all the noise and inanity, with radio and television dominated by pop mucous, as I call it, restricts us thinking for ourselves. If you bash people over the head so strongly they become desensitised and won’t question or discriminate any more.” How right he is.

In terms of his philosophy, John believes that “structure is the most important aspect of life, and music of course. You’ve got to have a sense of purpose, a feeling of unity, of growth. Approaching a concert architecturally is rather like flying at the critical height whereby you can see every flower and the whole field too.” John’s realisations remain true to this fundamental principle and satisfy our hearts and minds.

John closes his RFH recital with Beethoven, maybe his signature composer. He admires Beethoven’s “directness, sincerity, complete lack of blarney, and his indomitable will and inner strength.” Hmmm, that’s also a fitting description of John Lill, a man of high values and hard work, and easeful, humorous company. John quips, should his career go pear-shaped, that “I can always change my name to Lillton John!”

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