Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Symphony No.2 [London premiere]
Ma Mère l’Oye – Suite

John Lill (piano)

OSJ (Orchestra of St John’s)
John Lubbock

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 6 January, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Mention the ‘two Johns’ and thoughts invariably turn to Messrs Bird and Fortune and their witty and satirical dialogues. In musical terms the ‘two Johns’ might now be considered ‘Lill and Lubbock’. I know not if they have worked together before, but on the evidence of this like-minded interpretation of Schumann’s Concerto there will hopefully be future assignations (indeed, they perform the Schumann again on 25 April at Cadogan Hall). This was a real partnership, a dialogue, John Lill often withdrawing to a subtle obbligato when a colleague in the orchestra had something more important to say, not least one of OSJ’s eloquent and characterful woodwind soloists.

This was a thoughtful, reflective and beautifully modulated account, rigorous in structural matters and clarity of utterance, neither wilful nor sentimental, and very satisfying in coherence and sensibility. Expressive dynamics abounded and Lill made the first-movement cadenza both integrated and cumulative. The following ‘Intermezzo’ gently burgeoned (lovely cello playing) and the measured finale satisfied both direction and articulation.

Diana Burrell’s 20-minute Landscape (1988) has its potentially pictorial moments, naturalistic ones, but the repetition of rhythmic structures and, seemingly, greater concern with add-on effects than development added up to a piece that rather stood still and left little to think about afterwards. Some ‘unusual’ orchestration (including steel drums and recorders) seemed no more than novelty and some ‘scrap-yard’ percussion outstayed its welcome. Watered-down suggestions of Messiaen, Tippett and Birtwistle may tell of influences on Burrell. Even so, the walkie-talkie conversation backstage was regrettably all too audible during the performance (SBC please note) – and should broadcast well! – and Landscape’s closing silence was intruded upon by ignorant applause.

James MacMillan’s Symphony No.2 (1999) also has its share of devices (although his use of pizzicato is altogether more fluid than Burrell’s). Over its 25-minute span, it’s difficult to judge the content as being symphonic or allusive. The “wintry” context is audible enough, so too the “elegiac” and “melancholic” aspects (MacMillan introduced the work from the platform, as Burrell had done for Landscape). Certainly there were compelling ‘moments’ but linking them in a chain proved rather elusive, especially in the long central movement, an extension of MacMillan’s 1985 Piano Sonata. The short, prelude and postlude outer movements added little, the reference to Wagner’s Tristan chord towards the end as mysterious in this context as the composer had verbally suggested. Some rather banal excursions appear concerned with ‘world events’, not least militaristic ones, and a march-like episode seemed underpinned by Dukas’s Sorcerer’s Apprentice or ‘Uranus’ from Holst’s Planets.

The abiding memory of this concert will be the Lill and Lubbock collaboration, backed to the hilt by the excellence of OSJ (founded by Lubbock), a caring, sharing band of sensitivity and commitment, the musicians tackling both contemporary works with relish. If Lubbock’s time-taken view of Mother Goose occasionally lacked impetus, this subtle and rapt account took one into a very particular world and reminded of the miraculous insights into this music that Giulini and Celibidache have shared with us. It was only after the performance that I read Lubbock’s biography to find that he studied with the latter conductor. (By the way, the biography for Lill that OSJ used in the programme was hopelessly out of date; surprisingly there was no mention of his year-old Schumann recording, and to say that his Nimbus Rachmaninov cycle is “just finished” is stretching it a bit: the project was completed in 1997!)

Anyway, make no mistake, OSJ is a splendid ensemble, its conductor is a lucid and considerate musician, and their concerts together are worth seeking out.

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