Sonata in E flat, HobXVI:52
Sonata in F, Op.54
Sonata in B minor
John Lill (piano)
Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse
Reviewed: 27 October, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London
John Lill has regularly evinced a balance between poise and impulsiveness in his pianism. So the present recital, two contrasting Classical sonatas leading into two complementary Romantic masterworks, was both typical and inspired in its programming.
The most virile of Haydn’s trilogy of sonatas from 1794, the E flat opens with an impressively cumulative sonata-Allegro, followed by an ’Adagio’ whose harmonic richness places it within the sphere of the last eight quartets. Lill did justice to both, then moved up a gear for the ’Presto’ – its ’moto perpetuo’ traversal through rondo-form hardly “chugging merrily along” (to quote the programme note) on this occasion.
If Haydn’s sonata is his most Beethovenian, Beethoven’s Op.54 sonata is his most Haydnesque – in spirit if not in outward form. One of his most abstractly musical too, with a Minuet-like movement which plays ’cat-and-mouse’ with starkly opposed ideas, and an ’Allegretto’ whose Bachian figuration goes through the range of keys in its circular movement away from and back to its starting point. Not so much a refutation of its Napoleonic context as a complete divorce from it, and played here with unassuming mastery.
The first half had concluded with Schumann’s Humoreske – the most typical of his large-scale piano works in its ambivalence of form and manner. Nominally continuous, its five apparent sections each comprise a number of contrasting mood-pieces that gel only in the context of the whole piece. It was at this level that Lill excelled, with lucidity to each component that sustained the music effortlessly over its 28-minute span. Therefore passing felicities were subsumed into the overall flow to give the music an unadorned quality which some will have felt at-odds with its flights of fancy. Your reviewer, however, was captivated by the work as never before.
Not a description one would level at Liszt’s B minor sonata, transcendental writing allied to a form not so much organic as self-developing. Again, it was this sense of musical ideas re-emerging in ever-new contexts, as the expanded but surprisingly clear-cut sonata-movement took shape, which was the most impressive aspect of Lill’s interpretation. Not that virtuosity was lacking, witness the double fugue which functions as the ’real’ development, only that it was evident as a by-product of the discourse rather than its raison d’etre. The latter is enshrined in the poetic fatalism from which the work emerges and to which it inevitably returns – rendered here with unaffected rightness.
No encore was forthcoming – but after a 90-minute programme as well-balanced and persuasively realised as this, anything extra would have served little purpose, or been negative. Lill’s integrity and concern for “long-term thought”, of which he wrote in his programme note, was evident at every level of his recital. We are fortunate that such matters mean so much to him and that he conveys them so tangibly in his music-making.