John Lill and Matthias Bamert

Mussorgsky arr. Rimsky-Korsakov
Night on the Bare Mountain
Piano Concerto No.1 in B flat minor, Op.23
Scheherazade – Symphonic Suite, Op.35

John Lill (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Matthias Bamert

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 22 April, 2004
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

John Lill has commented recently on a new energy that he feels and new ideas he has found in his playing of music closely associated with him. Certainly, as Classical Source colleagues have noted in reviewing his recent Schumann CD and Royal Festival Hall recital, Lill’s interpretative prowess and integrity remain not only intact and rejuvenated – but important. So it was at this concert.

In his delivery of maybe the most hackneyed of the popular piano concertos, Lill’s musicianship and structural concerns paid dividends in raising this work to a level that it does not always attain. Lill’s consideration was about what he could do for the concerto rather than what it could do for him. A broader than usual tempo for the famous opening worked very well, the music given dignity and dynamic variance, Lill’s mellow unfolding attractively ruminative. The main body of the first movement enjoyed a coherence that didn’t eschew bravura thrills and lyrical asides, which memorably culminated in the cadenza, and which seemed to owe its processes to its counterpart in Schumann’s concerto. The slow movement was ideally straightforward, the mercurial middle section given with lightness, fleetness and articulacy, and the finale was not a barnstorming romp but a judiciously built apotheosis.

Lill’s concentration on the concerto’s shape didn’t preclude romance or fantasy, and one of this performance’s joys was the balance between piano and orchestra – Lill’s delicacy and discretion was arresting, especially as this allowed details in the orchestra, not least various woodwind solos, poetically played here, to emerge with the equality that surely Tchaikovsky intended.

Matthias Bamert was a sympathetic accompanist, and this versatile conductor led performances of the orchestral favourites that were one in sense perfectly fine and, in another, not especially memorable.

The Royal Philharmonic is a consistently good orchestra, and it rode a lack of rehearsal well. Yet, while Bamert set sensible tempos and indulged neither work, there was sometimes a lack of focus. These pleasing enough performances were, however, intruded upon by consistently too loud, too dominating, too rasping trombones – maybe a Bamert preference but this is not the first time this section has eclipsed the rest of the orchestra. Splendid players, of course, but such blaring timbres had become tiresome early into Night on the Bare Mountain, in which the over-banged cymbals were equally irritating, and out of place in Rimsky’s sanitised (if likeable) version of Mussorgsky’s startling original. At least Clio Gould offered suitably feminine violin solo solos in Scheherazade.

Maybe the RPO could address its trombones – and also advise some of its patrons not to applaud between movements; this clique of so-doers does not match the musical intelligence evinced on the platform.

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