Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, Op.24
Fantasy in C, Op.17
John Lill (piano)
Recorded between 11-13 January 2000 in The Old Market, Hove, England
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: March 2006
CD No: SIGNUM SIGCD075
Duration: 77 minutes
Originally recorded for the defunct GMN label, this release competes with John Lill’s later, 2003, recording of Schumann’s Fantasy for Classics for Pleasure. Comparisons between the earlier one, issued here for the first time by Signum, are instructive. Both are splendidly captured, and whilst Lill’s timings for the three movements are more or less identical, the earlier account – and, like the CFP version, this feels like a ‘real’ performance rather than an edited one – seems to have caught Lill in even more spontaneous form, ebbing and flowing with even greater ease with sounds hanging effortlessly in the air and a sense of even more poetic communion with the music.
Separating the disc’s two major works, the Schumann coming first, are Brahms’s three Intermezzos, collected as Opus 117. Lill brings quiet dignity to this music where other pianists sometimes wallow, and also, particularly in the final piece, a restrained power.
Finally an account of Brahms’s Handel Variations that does this extremely demanding work something like full justice. Julius Katchen’s Decca recording has long been a yardstick. Lill runs it very close and, in some respects, improves on it. There is an honest strength and sturdiness to Handel’s theme itself and to Brahms’s concluding Fugue, which comes across even more effectively from Lill; one never forgets the music’s origins. There is also an ongoing sweep and certainty to Lill’s treatment of the Variations themselves which sets up the sort of tensions that come naturally in a live performance – for example, Variation XV catches a pulsating on-the-wing exuberance that is seldom caught in the studio – and the set builds inexorably to the grandeur of the final Variation and concluding Fugue. Above all one senses Lill’s absolute conviction and mastery in a work not easy to bring off.
This release is recommended with all possible enthusiasm.