John Lill 60th-Birthday Recital

Sonata in F, K332
Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op.26
Toccata in D minor, Op.11
Three Intermezzos, Op.117
Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)

John Lill (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 14 March, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Strange to think that John Lill’s win at the Tchaikovsky Competition is now over half his lifetime ago, and that his recital and concerto appearances have been a feature of British musical life for even longer. Yet, as a memorable recital at the Royal Festival Hall 18 months ago confirmed, there is nothing routine or predictable in either his approach to individual works or his overall musicianship. This afternoon’s programme covered the range of his repertoire – from high Classicism to early Modernism – and featured pieces with which he has long been identified as well as music new to his repertoire.

While Mozart’s F major Sonata is not as obviously characterful than those either side of it, and so tends to draw less attention to itself, it is formally among his most lucid and well-balanced. Lill took his time over the opening Allegro, its gentle disruption of the sonata-form process thoughtfully underlined, and maintained absolute poise over the far from placid Adagio. Deftly inflected, the finale had a lively humour without suggesting more anecdotal capers over its good-natured course.

Among the last piece of his decade-long immersion in piano writing, Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien has itself often been overlooked in comparison to several earlier works. On his previous South Bank visit, Lill gave a revelatory account of Schumann’s Humoreske. If the present performance didn’t quite ’open up’ the later work to the same degree, it presented to a remarkably coherent degree what can often seem an uneven collection of movements. The Allegro was given with a persuasive balance between its cavorting main theme and more leisurely episodes, and if Lill underplayed the poignancy of the Romanze and the restless anticipation of the Intermezzo, he found due animation in the Scherzino and marshalled energy in the Finale so that the coda readily cascaded to its finish.

Lill placed the most contrasted items either side of the interval – maintaining enviable stamina and accuracy over the relentless course of Prokofiev’s Toccata, then easing the audience back into a musical frame of mind with the most introspective of Brahms’s late sets of piano miniatures. Its opening lullaby impressed with pellucid textures and subtle tonal colouring, though contrast between the two minor-key pieces could have been more pointedly defined. These are pieces that, in such a large recital venue, can seem to melt into the ambience – out of range of listeners’ perceptions.

No such consideration, of course, with Beethoven’s Appassionata – the most highly-wrought of his sonatas and, other than the Moonlight, the easiest to reduce to emotional cliché and false pathos. Needless to say that Lill sacrificed nothing of the opening movement’s underlying drama while steering its complex formal ramifications with absolute clarity – and how gratifying to be able to savour the range of keyboard nuance and textural balance ’in real-time’. Nor does Lill underplay the expressive depth of the Andante – though it was a pity not to proceed directly on from the Allegro assai, nor did the variations take wing quite so effortlessly as on Lill’s superb studio recording (part of his cycle now on Sanctuary Classics – RSB101 – and worth every penny of its modest price). The finale, however, was faultless both in its control of momentum over the twice-through exposition and development and in the letting-go of the coda – the music reaching its impassioned denouement with stoic finality.

Quite a performance overall, then, and Lill had enough in reserve to give us the C minor Nocturne from Chopin’s Op. 48 – its deeper emotions subtly brought out – and a suitably animated G minor Prelude from Rachmaninov’s Op.23. It ended a distinguished and rewarding recital from a pianist whose unassertive but uncompromising integrity has never been as welcome nor so relevant as now.

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