John Lill – Beethoven: The Complete Piano Sonatas at Cadogan Hall [7/8; Pastoral … Opus 110]

Piano Sonata No.5 in C minor, Op.10/1
Piano Sonata No.15 in D, Op.28 (Pastoral)
Piano Sonata No.25 in G, Op.79
Piano Sonata No.30 in A flat, Op.110

John Lill (piano)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 10 February, 2014
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

John Lill (c) Roman GoncharovThe penultimate recital in John Lill’s Beethoven Piano Sonata cycle offered one of the most representative overviews in the composer’s intensive evolution of the genre. Opening with the C minor Sonata (1797) was itself notable – this being the first of the ‘32’ to dispense with a scherzo (though Beethoven drafted the piece with one in mind). Lill left little to chance in the opening Allegro, its strident first theme not so much offset as ignored by its deadpan successor in a procedure that is opened up in the reprise and developmental coda. The Adagio is no less prescient in its juxtaposing equally long-breathed melodic lines – with very different accompaniments – akin to those in the First and Third Piano Concertos, and in which Lill’s concentration threatened to pre-empt the impact of the closing Prestissimo. In the event, this most inquisitive of Beethoven’s early finales rounded off the work with coursing energy that almost overreached itself in the intensified reprise, but there was no mistaking the purposeful understatement of the final bars: a scherzo in all but name that suggested the three-movement option was never really in doubt.

Complete contrast was provided by the D major Sonata (1801), that earlier ‘Pastoral’ which is the perennial ‘dark horse’ among Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas from the period. While not favouring the dogged steadiness of his recorded cycle, Lill’s approach to the first movement remains a deliberate one – the opening theme gradually coming into focus then what follows not so much lightening the atmosphere as underlining the sonorous textures of what, in the development, reaches an unexpected peak of fervency. In what is a Sonata with little fast music yet no slow movement, the Andante conveyed a straitlaced humour which was accentuated by the main theme’s pedantic accompaniment and its knowing tendency to circle round its salient motifs. The scherzo was as lively (and its trio as witty) as the laconic gestures warrant, while the finale unfolded with a blend of charm and rumination that reinforced the rustic connotation of the subtitle. Nor did Lill miss the trick of giving the coda that surge which enables the work suddenly to break free from its inherent restraint.

After the interval, a rare outing (outside of complete traversals at any rate) for the short G major Sonata (1809) which yields unexpected depths behind its whimsical demeanour. Not so much in the opening Presto, whose moto perpetuo figuration begins to chase its own tail almost before the development is underway, but assuredly in the central Andante with its plaintive melody upon which Chopin (and Tchaikovsky too) fastened with alacrity. Lill shaped it with winsome poise and then brought out the verve of the final Vivace so its nimble articulation went unruffled by more disruptive asides prior to the most artless of endings.

A pertinent up-beat to Opus 110 (1821) which, as is Lill’s wont, followed on apace. Not so much less-performed as more taken for granted than those Sonatas on either side, this most formally integrated of the final trilogy wears its intermittent virtuosity as lightly as its accumulated wisdom. Lill was mindful not to understate the first movement: unaffected in its melodic content, it still accrued real pathos as it unfolded what is one of Beethoven’s most elusive designs – and to which the brief yet brusque scherzo emerges in visceral contrast. Continuing on from Opuses 27/1 and Opus 101, the finale is a synthesis of slow movement and finale – the initial Adagio (designated ‘Arioso dolente’) probing depths the ensuing Fuga does not dispel so much as render increasingly affirmative via a process of motivic evolution which, following an intensified return of the ‘Arioso’, is breathtaking in its embracing of rigour and spontaneity. Such was the impression conveyed by this performance, in which Lill rose to the technical and (most especially) emotional challenge of this Sonata with absolute conviction: the coruscating final bars a joyous QED for the work as a whole and a gripping close to an absorbing recital.

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