John Lill at Fairfield Halls

Piano Sonata in D, K576
Piano Sonata No.21 in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)
Ballade in F minor, Op.52
Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel, Op.24

John Lill (piano)

Reviewed by: Robert Matthew-Walker

Reviewed: 20 September, 2011
Venue: The Concert Hall, Fairfield Halls, Croydon

This recital, the first to be given on Fairfield Halls’ new Steinway concert grand, could not have had a finer inauguration than John Lill’s connoisseurs’ programme, nor could the audience have witnessed finer interpretations of these four masterpieces than were given by the artist who is surely the greatest living British pianist, bar none.

John LillMozart’s Sonata in D is relatively (but only relatively) popular in the composer’s Sonata output, yet we only seem to encounter it these days on recordings. It is a remarkable work: in three movements, on a large scale (Lill observed all repeats), it is shot through with such contrapuntal mastery as to convince one that not since Bach was such compositional skill possessed of any composer. Lill’s tempos were ideal, and his touch, phrasing, chording and sheer intellectual grip raised one’s understanding of the work by several cubits.

Such technical and musical comments could be applied to Lill’s performance of the ‘Waldstein’, which was easily the greatest this commentator has heard live in sixty years of concert-going: the manner by which Lill unfolded (that is the word) the opening theme of the finale and the tonal gradations and unbelievably affecting phrasing of that entry will long stay in the memory. Not only that and other qualities, but the structural cohesion of the Sonata (often rendered puzzling by less imaginative or knowledgeable pianists) was as if revealed anew.

Chopin’s F minor Ballade also benefitted from Lill’s structurally cohesive approach, his phrasing an absolute joy. Following was Brahms’s Handel Variations and Fugue, which may not quite be a flawless masterpiece, although Lill’s account almost convinced us that it is, but it is surely impossible to imagine a greater or more convincing performance than this: the left-hand in Variation IV and the repeated notes in Variation VIII were superbly woven within the myriad textures, and even the concluding Fugue (as an example of which neither Bach nor Mozart, nor Beethoven for that matter, would have given high marks) was performed with such wholeness as to make us wonder whether our preconceptions were misplaced. This was a stunning recital from a true master.

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