John Lill – Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas at Cadogan Hall [4/8; The Tempest]

Piano Sonata No.13 quasi una fantasia in E flat, Op.27/1
Piano Sonata No.17 in D minor, Op.31/2 (The Tempest)
Piano Sonata No.19 in G minor, Op.49/1
Piano Sonata No.20 in G, Op.49/2
Piano Sonata No.28 in A, Op.101

John Lill (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 November, 2013
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

John Lill. Photograph: Roman GoncharovJohn Lill’s traversal of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas reached the halfway point here with a programme that made notably persuasive case for his combination of early-, middle- and late-period works within each recital. ‘Earlier’ might be more appropriate with the E flat Sonata (1801), as this most radical in a group of already forward-looking pieces is demonstrably mature Beethoven in its running together of the customary four movements with a spontaneity that amply underlines its ‘quasi una fantasia’ subtitle. Lill brought a teasing insouciance to the opening variations – its penultimate Allegro only briefly ruffling the main Andante – then rendered the scherzo with a fine equivocation between its elegant figuration and rhythmic incisiveness. The brief Adagio – its inward expressiveness a harbinger of things to come – had all the requisite gravitas; suitably enhanced when it reappears in the context of a finale whose bracing humour is channelled toward a coda of exhilarating verve. No-one has quite equalled Schnabel in this work, though Lill comes as close as any.

From formal ingenuity to expressive intensity with ‘The Tempest’ Sonata, the centrepiece of the Opus 31 trilogy of works; the anecdote connecting it to Shakespeare has long been doubted, yet the latter’s drama deals with contrasting kinds of rhetoric such as finds a ready analogy in this piece from 1802. Lill demonstrated how the opening movement unfolds through ever-more extreme contrasts between its Largo and Allegro components – reaching a mesmeric stillness at the start of a reprise whose passion then subsides in the brief though fateful coda. The central Adagio was no less fine in its dovetailing between sombre rumination and disarming intimacy – the poetic aftermath, perhaps, of the ‘funeral march’ from the A flat Sonata of the previous year – while the final Allegretto was a perpetuum mobile of deftly propelled energy whose momentum was not so much dispelled as projected out of earshot (via the lower reaches of the keyboard). Incidentally, has any composer come up with a more perfectly realised instance of three-movement form than this Sonata?

Not all pianists have featured the two Opus 49 ‘sonatinas’ in their traversal. Most likely written during 1797, they were not published until 1805. Lill evidently had no qualms as to their inclusion – rendering the initial Andante of the G minor with thoughtful simplicity and then investing its finale with a capering good humour. The G major was even more appealing – its genial opening Allegro as crisp in articulation as it was lithe in forward motion, while the closing Minuet evinced a poise the more disarming for being sustained at so measured a tempo. Works often dismissed as teaching fodder here took on an interest as made their presence not just welcome but necessary.

With Opus 101 (1816), Lill embarked upon the sequence of late works (though this arguably begins with the preceding Sonata, Opus 90) that is to round out each of the remaining recitals. The present Sonata is very much a pointer to the music of Beethoven’s final decade – bringing together music of almost whimsical simplicity with that of a probing depth which is significant in its being achieved through an integrating of emotion into the intrinsic fabric of sound. Lill avoided enfolding the initial Allegretto in any otherworldly aura, its gentleness not precluding the surge of agitation towards its centre, then dispatched the march-like scherzo with due appreciation of a rhythmic robustness that only gains in textural intricacy as it proceeds – and with a bemused charm in the trio that slid effortlessly back into the scherzo. As in Opus 27/1, the slow movement duly re-emerges at the culmination of the finale – though here formal inevitability is such as to constitute a seamless and cumulative whole. Lill did not overstate the introspection of the Adagio, enabling it to form a questing preamble into the final Allegro with its amalgam of sonata-form dynamism and fugal dexterity – all conveyed here with a steely intensity which held good through to that climactic return of the Adagio and decisive closing pay-off: a telling way to end the recital, and suitable point at which to resume this consistently impressive series on Monday 13 January.

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