John Lill Recital

Sonata in E flat (Hob 52)
Carnaval, Op.9
Sonata in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)

John Lill (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 22 February, 2003
Venue: John Keble Church, Dean’s Lane, Edgware, Middlesex

This concert was a distinguished item in the Hendon Music Society’s 2002- 2003 season – the third out of six.

The John Keble Church is the society’s new base. It is a modern structure – wide, light and airy. It has a flat roof, into which the builders have incorporated a great panel of multi-coloured glass. The excellent acoustics respond well to solo performers and small ensembles.

First, I must tell you about the concert’s ending – in an interchange that epitomised the character of the recital. After the last bars of the ’Hammerklavier’ – a pedalled cloud of joyous, swelling sound from the glorious Fasioli piano – John Lill bowed and left the platform, returning almost straight away. Then he stayed where he was – tallish and broad-boned … a man of quiet, commanding presence. “We have just been through a searing, emotionally-draining experience. I am drained playing it. You must be drained having listened to it. After a piece like that, there’s no more to say.”

Lill’s recital began with Haydn’s E flat sonata – a work from his mature years. It’s the largest sonata he wrote and a supreme example of late eighteenth-century keyboard writing. Like most of his sonatas, this was written for domestic performance. The technical demands are considerable, and its dedicatee, Therese Jansen-Bartolozzi, must have been a remarkable pianist – however ’amateur’ her status. Lill’s playing was fully appreciative of Haydn’s steadiness of character and emotional reticence, of his adventurousness and acute musical intelligence, too. The first movement opened majestically followed by lively themes, skittering, yet with stylish phrasing. The piano responded well to the imposing sonority of the opening and the limpid agitation of the ensuing allegro – an impressive instrument under skilled and adroit fingers.

The slow movement was exemplary, Lill’s adagio playing measured not heavy, slow not static, dignified not ponderous. This was no tripping andante, such as one might hear from lesser musicians, not dodging the emotional stillness, self-respect and repose needed for playing a true adagio. The skittish last movement began with an excited flurry of sound, playing about with key changes and neatly returning us to the E flat home key after the adagio’s ’remote’ E major. This reminds of Beethoven’s forays into similar territory in his later Bagatelles.

We then jumped ahead some forty years chronologically and light-years musically to Robert Schumann’s Carnaval. It consists of brief ’scenes mignonnes’. Carnaval is a kind of sketchbook; there’s something different on every page … yet common themes and interests show through. Schumann introduces some of the followers of David. To the fore is Schumann himself. Famously, he depicts his own temperament as containing two opposing forces – the meditative is ’Eusebius’, the frenetically active is ’Florestan’. He celebrates allies, musical heroes Chopin and Paganini, and his romantic attachments, Ernestine von Fricken and Clara Wieck. He looks at the commedia dell’arte, sphinxes and butterflies … the piece closes with the followers of David marching to war against the Philistines.

Unexpectedly, Carnaval proved a revealing complement to the Haydn whose innovations are fleeting moments within a formal structure, experimental yet restrained, and placed within convention. Schumann’s innovations are errant and romantic – each ’scene’ representing a single musical idea, a mood. Lill’s performance – technical facility was without doubt or challenge – encompassed many exquisite moments – yet, something was missing. The nervous, mercurial nature of Schumann’s writing somehow eluded him. The repose, sanity and stability, the emotionally sensitive reticence of Haydn proved not the most appropriate resources for promoting Schumann’s impressionism and caprice.

This ’Hammerklavier’ was of great energy. The natural outcome of this power – turbulent and resilient – is speed. In Beethoven’s music, you can virtually hear the mind and emotions hurtling past the hand. Unfortunately, too many pianists past and present, even Schnabel, seem to think the reverse – they play the music fast, hoping they will therefore play powerfully. Speed doesn’t produce power. It’s power that produces speed. John Lill understands this. Right from the ringing declaration at the sonata’s outset, there was an awareness of power as the vital source of all this surging, ceaseless, restless energy. The Scherzo was even faster – the music more energetic and power-driven than before, its explosive momentum was like a fire-tailed comet spurting through the galaxy.

The great slow movement constitutes the sonata’s one legitimate pause for breath, with moments of great lament and wonderfully limpid release as the waters begin at last to flow and, for a while, accompany a soaring, dolorous theme. Go flaccid on any of that and you rob Beethoven of his dignity. Lill appreciates this so well. This may not have been the most daringly vigorous or the most sublime performance of this peak of European sensibility, yet it was dignified and robust. Lill gave the notes room to make their designated point. Above all, it was humane.

The last movement is an expression of joy – what, joy expressed through a fugue? Beethoven’s joy can be – ought to be – a frightening thing to behold, something so fiercely ecstatic that people you thought were strong grow weak at the knees and turn pale. Its speed and dynamic power is enough to break the sound barrier, circle deafeningly around the planet … that’s how John Lill played it.

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