Piano Sonata No.1 in F minor, Op.2/1
Piano Sonata No.4 in E flat, Op.7
Piano Sonata No.12 in A flat, Op.26 (Funeral March)
Piano Sonata No.26 in E flat, Op.81a (Les adieux)
John Lill (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 4 November, 2013
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
The third recital in John Lill’s traversal of Beethoven’s complete Piano Sonatas began with his first published such work and ended with the last from his ‘middle’ period. In terms of length alone, the Opus 2 set (1795) is an imposing achievement and while the F minor is on a slightly smaller scale than its successors, its emotional impact can hardly be gainsaid. Lill went further by observing the second-half repeats in the outer movements – opening-out the Allegro’s angularity as it becomes leavened by a certain ironic detachment over its later stages, then pointing-up the finale’s eventful course as its coursing main theme is waylaid by more equable material before surging to its angry close. The Minuet had the right degree of elegance undercut by agitation (not least in the tensile Trio), though it was the Adagio that left the most lasting impression – its main theme derived from the slow movement of a piano quartet written over a decade before and in which the composer seems to be viewing the gallant expression of his youth from a more probing and inward perspective.
An impressive performance, then, and that of the E flat Sonata (1797) was demonstrably more so. Beethoven’s longest such work prior to the ‘Hammerklavier’, it is arguably his finest before the ‘Pathétique’ while relatively neglected outside of integral cycles. Lill took the opening Allegro at a vibrant pace, the exposition’s cumulative energy barely held in check during the development and with sufficient tonal sideslips in the reprise to keep the movement in heady motion through to its coda. Less searching than its counterpart in Opus 10, the Adagio is surely the more cohesive in its harnessing of dynamic and emotional extremes – the discourse hinging on a brief yet striking transition back to the main theme that was grippingly brought off here. The remaining two movements can seem on a lower level of intensity, but there was nothing low-key about the capricious Minuet or its combative Trio, while the central episode in the finale had an aggression to set in relief not only the gracious theme on either side but also the final bars in which a limpid serenity is finally attained.
After the interval, the A flat Sonata (1801) has Beethoven actively testing the parameters of the genre in a piece whose four movements constitute a formal unity almost in spite of themselves. Lill pursued a thoughtful course through the first of these – its whimsical Variations on an unfailingly courteous Theme rendered with a hint of disingenuousness – then breezed through a scherzo which bristled with rhythmic élan. He made little attempt to play down the slow movement’s singular rhetoric – this ‘Marcia funebre sulla morte d’un Eroe’ unfolding with that fateful tread such as the composer rendered in symphonic terms just two years on, and with its resolute central section a sequence of rolling phrases that already exude an orchestral ambience. After this, the finale does not so much tie up the overall design as nonchalantly dismiss it out of hand – yet motivic connections with the foregoing are not hard to deduce and Lill ensured these were brought out as the movement headed to its decisive close. A work of which Beethoven later apparently thought little was not to be denied.
Lill has never been a pianist to ‘draw out’ his recitals, and there was little time to dwell on one piece before the next was underway. Here it was the ‘Les adieux’ Sonata (1810) – though the German rendering of ‘Lebewohl’ more accurately touches on that regretful leave-taking such as informs this work (unless the whole concept is an elaborate joke at the expense of its dedicatee – the high-minded Archduke Rudolf) and which is reflected in those titles attached to each movement. Lill was mindful to rein-in the liveliness of the initial Allegro, placing especial emphasis on the questing introduction that returns with renewed potency toward the close. The Andante can seem among the most elusive of Beethoven’s sonata movements, yet emerged here with a plangent longing that is summarily cancelled out with the eruption of the finale. Few pianists attempt, let alone sustain, the tempo that this ‘Vivacissimamente’ invites: Lill did so, and had enough in reserve to shape the coda with abundant eloquence before charging through the decisive final bars.