Fantasy in C, Op.17
Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op.26
John Lill (piano)
Recorded 11-13 December 2003 in Henry Wood Hall, London
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: March 2004
CD No: CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 5858992
Duration: 76 minutes
In German-speaking countries the lifetime achievement of eminent individuals is often honoured with a Festschrift, generally a collection of writings celebrating that individual. This intelligently planned and excellently executed new CD is the musical equivalent of a Festschrift for John Lill – allowing though that he celebrates only his 60th birthday on March 17, 2004.
In every respect this Schumann disc represents quality. Recorded as recently as last December in the sympathetic acoustic of London’s Henry Wood Hall, it boasts John Boyden as producer and Tony Faulkner as recording engineer; and it’s good to see Peter Salisbury, the piano technician, also given a credit. As one would expect from this team, the production values and sound quality are first-class. Moreover at 76 minutes the CD is not only generously filled but also intelligently planned to give an overview of the differing and contradictory sides of Schumann’s personality. First is the rapturous Fantasy, sometimes described as the greatest love-poem for piano; then comes the exuberant and outgoing ‘Carnival Jest from Vienna’ and, finally, the tender ‘Scenes from Childhood’, which, as Barry Millington’s booklet-note points out, “recreate for adults the world of childhood as seen through the eyes of children.”
Besides excelling in the core classical repertoire, Lill is also a considerable virtuoso. One tends to forget that aged 18 he played Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto with Boult – so the technical demands of the Fantasy’s second-movement march hold few terrors for him, and the passionate opening movement is uncommonly convincing and seamless; both set-up the cross-tensions normally found only in a live performance. The final movement – “a night without stars,” to use Richter’s memorable description – is daringly slow (just over 13 minutes compared to around 11 from Curzon, Ashkenazy and Richter himself), which may divide opinion. After initial reservations, on repeated listening I was convinced. I doubt that anyone will be less than considerably impressed by the Fantasy, which radiates deep inner conviction.
In the five character-pieces of ‘Carnival Jest’, Lill combines power and delicacy in equal measure, especially in the extended opening movement. Nor does he neglect the simple poetry of the ‘Romanze’, which carries an emotional charge out of proportion to its short duration. Only in the ‘Scherzino’ does one feel the need for a lighter touch, but elsewhere, especially in the ‘Intermezzo’ and ‘Finale’, this is playing of propulsive thrust and energy.
‘Scenes from Childhood’ is not sentimentalised – “Träumerei”, the most famous of Kinderszenen’s 13 pieces, is given mercifully straight. Particularly convincing are the fifth piece, “Contentment”, which has an authentic Schumannesque schwung, more or less non-translatable but indicating a surge and lift, and the gentle intimacies of the penultimate “Child falling asleep”.
This then is a distinguished, modestly-priced release from an eminent pianist, one which deserves the widest possible currency.