John Lill in Hampstead

Sonata in E flat (Hob XVI:52)
Sonata No.8 in B flat, Op.84
Kinderszenen, Op.15
Sonata in F minor, Op.57 (Appassionata)

John Lill (piano)

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 17 May, 2004
Venue: The Parish Church of St John-at-Hampstead, Church Row, London, NW3

This recital formed part of the week-long 2004 Hampstead and Highgate Festival (on until 23 May), and was billed as a “Celebrity Recital”. While the word ‘celebrity’ is today more a euphemism for the hyping of non-entities, the irony is that if any pianist deserves to be ‘celebrated’ it is the unostentatious John Lill who has devoted himself body and soul to the service of music for more than 50 years (he was not 10 when he made his debut), yet were anybody to describe him to his face as a celebrity, one imagines he would flinch at the description.

Hampstead and Highgate has been home to some distinguished pianists past (Clifford Curzon) and present (Alfred Brendel, Stephen Kovacevich, Angela Hewitt and, indeed, John Lill).

On this occasion Lill chose to play three ‘Everests’ of the sonata repertoire, the E flat of Haydn, possibly his grandest, the Eighth of Prokofiev, arguably his greatest, and the Appassionata. As a bonus he gave us Schumann’s Kinderszenen, which features on his most recent CD for Classics for Pleasure.

If this review chooses to focus mainly on the Prokofiev, this is because not only is it an important work rarely performed, but also because the Appassionata featured in Lill’s recent Royal Festival Hall recital (reviewed by Richard Whitehouse) and Kinderszenen is on that new CD, which I reviewed.

That said, how many pianists could tackle four such different works in one recital with equal success? The Haydn was big boned but rubicund, and sturdy in the finale, whilst the Adagio had a heart of gold. Lill made much of the first movement’s contrasts – to telling effect. Kinderszenen was completely unsentimental, devoid of any affectation but at the same time deeply poetic, and the Appassionata was equally satisfying – weighty and animated, Lill’s typical regard for structure looked forward to the titanic energy of the finale’s coda.

The Prokofiev was a courageous choice on Lill’s part, the bleakest of utterances. One reflects that Prokofiev died in 1953 in Moscow the same day as Stalin. Prokofiev’s friends, all cars having been commandeered, carried the composer’s body six blocks. Anyone wanting to sense what it must have been like to live through those grim times should read Andrei Makine’s wonderfully written recently published novella “A Life’s Music”. The Sonata No.8 will probably never be popular – but this is important music that deserves to be heard. Completed in 1944, numbness informs the spacious opening movement as patterns repeat themselves as if in a daze only to be punctuated by outbursts of ferocious anger. Lill had its full measure, adopting a flowing speed, which helped unify the structure and, of course, he had the physical power to punch home its climaxes, especially the chilling final eruption, which suggests a tornado of dead leaves sweeping across graves.

The central Andante, ostensibly calm, is in fact profoundly disconcerting, like some macabre echo of salon music half-remembered from happier times. The finale ignites with a thudding anger, culminating – after a brief memory of calm from the opening movement – in a burst of quivering fury. Lill has recorded all Prokofiev’s sonatas for ASV and in his hands the music’s real message as the truthful memento of what Russians refer to as “The Time of Troubles” was never in doubt for a moment. Outstanding in every respect.

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