John Lill – Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas at Cadogan Hall [6/8; Pathétique … À Thérèse … Opus 109]

Piano Sonata No.2 in A, Op.2/2
Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique)
Piano Sonata No.24 in F sharp, Op.78 (À Thérèse)
Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109

John Lill (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 27 January, 2014
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

John Lill. Photograph: (c) Roman GoncharovThe sixth instalment of John Lill’s Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle commenced with the Second work from Opus 2 (1795). Less demonstrative than those on either side in this trilogy, it is also the largest and the most imposing – while establishing a ground-plan that was to serve the composer well over the next five years. Lill had the measure of the initial Allegro’s bracing humour – its unforced momentum concealing more than its share of technical challenges, not least in the extensive development whose return as part of the second-half repeat gave this movement considerable breadth. The Bachian interplay between melody and accompaniment in the ensuing Largo was eloquently articulated, notably the suddenly glowering return of the main theme at the start of the extended coda, while the scherzo had the requisite nonchalance to complement its coursing trio. The finale then juxtaposed the ingratiating elegance of its refrain with the trenchancy of its central episode – the deftness with which Beethoven combines them in the coda vividly delineated toward the end of this insightful reading.

That the ‘Pathétique’ (1798) has become much the best known of the earlier Sonatas is less to do with its intrinsic quality than the way in which rhetoric, as an expressive device, is integrated into the music such that its themes are heightened accordingly. In the first movement, Lill now chooses to include the probing Grave introduction as part of the exposition repeat and rightly so, as this additional appearance underlines the degree to which stasis and dynamism are brought into powerful accord: pointing up the vehemence of the Allegro’s main theme and the consoling ambivalence of its successor. While not the most profound of Beethoven’s earlier slow movements, the Adagio is the most affecting – its main theme unfolding with a ruminative pathos audibly to the fore here, though Lill did not neglect the more plangent shades of its contrasting ideas. Unlike many pianists, he favours a relatively measured (yet never sluggish) tempo for the finale – the music’s incisive alternation of the agitated and resolute held in check until the brusque dismissal of its closing bars.

The second halves of this and the next two recitals each features one of the last three Sonatas preceded by three that, in their different ways, fight shy of the heroic connotations (too) often synonymous with Beethoven. ‘À Thérèse’ (1809) ostensibly looks back to the ‘sonatina’ format of the early Classical era – though, unlike with the Opus 49 brace, there is nothing simple or naïve about what is among the most expressively inscrutable of the series. Unlike many exponents, Lill ensured that a different tempo for the epigraph-like Adagio introduction was not at the expense of that uniformity of pulse to be maintained over an Allegro whose flowing inwardness was unfolded with unerring poise. The vivacious finale duly exuded a capering charm that seemed an inevitable consequence of what had gone before, though Lill was mindful to ensure its innate verve never ran away with itself. Easy to hear why this piece has frequently been kept back until late in a complete cycle, as its elusive charms plumb depths comparable to the works that followed.

Hardly the least of which is Opus 109 (1820), ostensibly the bringer of calm following the epic strivings of its ‘Hammerklavier’ predecessor. Not that the first movement is without ambivalence, its alternately limpid and confessionary themes passing by with an improvisatory grace which is brusquely countered by the brief but vehement scherzo with its speculative trio. As with the ultimate Sonata, Opus 111, the finale is a set of variations on a theme of artless serenity – Beethoven here making conscious allusion to the Goldberg Variations in that the theme is a point both of departure and return. The six variations that come between are of the ‘double’ variety, which increasingly transcend their formal constraints, and Lill ensured their inherent contrast was not overstated prior to the mesmeric final section with its riot of trills further enhancing the expressive ecstasy: an instance of that leap of faith often encountered in the music of Beethoven’s last decade. When the theme finally returned, it posed the eternal question of things having changed or stayed the same, and did so with radiant assurance.

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