John Lill

Piano Sonata in E flat [Hoboken 52]
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op.111
Nocturne in C minor, Op.48/1; Polonaise in F sharp minor, Op.44
Piano Sonata No.7 in B flat, Op.83

John Lill (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 25 November, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

John LillThat John Lill was giving a “Celebrity Recital” seemed a contradiction. The word ‘celebrity’ is now so abused and over-used as to be meaningless, and, anyway, Lill is a pianist who has never relied on hype.

True to himself, Lill here gave a recital in which the music was the only thing that mattered. His focus and concentration was in itself notable – all we could do was listen, despite some hiatuses caused by the audience and some folks being allowed in while the performance was actually taking place!

Haydn’s grand sonata was given a magisterial account with plenty of light and shade, a deeply thoughtful performance of variegation and searching – the slow movement, very broadly paced, especially so – with the finale nimble, fired by drive and bravura, and always articulate.

The weight and time afforded Haydn brought his work remarkably close to Beethoven’s ultimate piano sonata (the Diabelli Variations still to be composed). Lill has a lifelong association with Beethoven (he had the 32 sonatas learnt as a teenager and has recorded the cycle) and his rough-hewn, unvarnished approach digs deep into Beethoven’s complex but direct communication. After the confrontations of the first movement, Lill eased into a particularly spacious account of the second (and last) movement’s Theme and Variations – contemplative, serene and quietly questing while building inexorably to some ‘pub piano’ that gave full vent to syncopation and Beethoven’s audacious ‘swing’. As the music wound-down, Lill was exacting to leave the question mark that Beethoven surely intended with the final chord.

Lill’s way with Chopin is unsentimental and wholesome – very much to the music’s advantage, so that the volcanic eruption at the Nocturne’s centre was organically arrived at and delivered with internal rather than applied power before returning to rapt expression. The Polonaise had vitality and undulation, avoiding portentousness while ensuring that the music’s varied patterns always had the spirit of the dance.

It’s much easier to blast through Prokofiev’s Seventh Sonata, pound the rhythms, stretch the melodies and push the accelerator to blur the finale’s mechanisms. Much more satisfying to play this ‘war sonata’ for its vehemence, reflection, structure and rhythmic interplay, building, releasing and saving something for the final bars. Which is what Lill did – and to the right kind of appreciative reception. Surprisingly, Lill offered no encore, but this had been a satisfying recital in terms of correspondences, contrasts and shape – and was brought off by Lill at his considerable best.

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