Emma Johnson & John Lill at Cadogan Hall – Music for clarinet and piano by Brahms, Dvořák & Schumann

Fantasiestücke, Op.73
2 Rhapsodies, Op.79 – No.1 in B minor; No.2 in G minor
Sonata No.1 in F minor for Clarinet and Piano, Op.120/1
Sonatina in G for Violin and Piano, Op.100 [arr. for clarinet by Emma Johnson]
3 Intermezzos, Op.117 – in E flat, in B flat minor & in A
Sonata No.2 in E flat for Clarinet and Piano, Op.120/2

Emma Johnson (clarinet) & John Lill (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 21 September, 2015
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

Emma JohnsonPhotograph: John BattenPublicity has suggested that if the long-serving man in the street were to be asked to name a pianist, then the answer would either be Les Dawson or John Lill. Similarly if the identity of a clarinettist were sought, the response would be Acker Bilk or Emma Johnson. As quotable and as amusing as all this may be, Dawson was a good enough pianist to get it so wrong-note in his shows and Lill has a particular penchant for classic comedy, and one wonders if Johnson has her equivalent of ‘Stranger on the Shore’. Be that as it may, as the great Tony Hancock was wont to say, here was a splendid evening of music and music-making to grace Cadogan Hall.

Related through friendship and mutual admiration, the three composers here represented provided original music for clarinet and piano, save for Dvořák whose urbane Violin Sonatina has been arranged by Johnson and transcribed a tone lower, to F-major. It opened the recital’s second half with a mix of perkiness, insouciance and delight (well-suited to the clarinet and given so gleefully and poetically by Johnson) to mirror the start of the programme when Robert Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces (also playable on viola or cello) invited the listener’s imaginative reaction to some typically beguiling music, yearning, wistful and deft.

Johnson and Lill are not a new partnership, although Lill appearing as an accompanist is a rarity, and they made music benevolently together. That said there was the occasional imbalance, the clarinet tending to dominance (and stridency). This may have been avoided had Johnson stood by the curve of the piano rather than standing out in front as a soloist and for the lid of the instrument to have been on a higher stick, for there were was a tendency for the Sonatas, in particular, to become with piano rather than the intended and, the duo aspect somewhat undermined, if probably no more than 55/45.

John LillPhotograph: Roman GoncharovIn both of Brahms’s late Sonatas, inspired by clarinettist Richard Mühlfeld (the composer also made them available for the viola), Lill was sensitive and, as required, muscular and always magnetic. Johnson, too, displayed much to admire, not least in terms of shapely phrasing, dynamism and a range of colour – as well as total identification with the music. The importance of both works (No.1 in four movements, its successor in three) was revealed, their passion, song and capriciousness, and with a fund of melody that haunts the memory long afterwards, not least the vaulting idea at the core of the E-flat Sonata’s second movement that found Lill in his element, reminding of the heroics needed in Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto (a Lill speciality) and, just before this, the close of the first movement was especially affecting through Johnson’s tenderness, and she would be just as mellow at the very end of the work, claiming the music’s autumnal quality, but also its inner strength. Brahms didn’t do false sentiment.

Some of the pieces were piano solos, recalling Lill’s triumph at this venue during the 13-14 Season with all 32 Beethoven Sonatas over eight evenings. Brahms’s Opus 117 Intermezzos include the transporting opener, here ennobled by Lill searching it with empathy and revealing the experience that informs Brahms’s final miniatures and their wonderfully expressive worlds, emphasised by Lill grouping all three pieces attacca, the second rippling with richness, the third fully replete of its imperial carriage. Brahms’s Rhapsodies, Opus 79, again paired as one, found Lill in energised and impassioned form, unvarnished and truthful (Brahms demands nothing less). Such a trenchant and indomitable response served Brahms’s structures while Lill’s compassion brought out all the music’s beauty, power and substance. The Steinway (its lid fully opened) sounded great, too.

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