Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Tod und Verklärung, Op.24
Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, Op.28
John Lill (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 19 March, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
It is a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to the Royal Festival Hall. Would that the same could be said of its Music Director, Daniele Gatti, who cancelled due to ill health – a pity given the sheer paucity of Gatti’s appearances with the orchestra, certainly in London.
The RPO is an excellent orchestra, as its recent Elgar concert with Leonard Slatkin demonstrated: a force to be reckoned with. However, permanent conductors need to devote time to their orchestras and, in this context, Gatti’s absence marking the RPO’s return to the Southbank Centre was particularly damaging. Gatti is due to conduct the RPO on 29 April (a further pairing of Brahms and Richard Strauss) and, before this, the RPO has concerts with Rozhdestvensky (15 April) and Slatkin (25th). Looking ahead, Charles Dutoit becomes the RPO’s Music Director from the 2009-10 Season.
John Lill has enjoyed a long and distinguished career – I first heard him with the then Scottish National Orchestra (now Royal) under Sir Alexander Gibson over 40 years ago It was good to be reminded once again just how instinctive a Brahms-player Lill is (do listen to his outstanding account of Brahms’s Handel Variations on Signum). This concerto-performance was Brahms on the grandest scale, a no-fuss leonine account such as Backhaus might have given us in a previous generation, yet one which in the lead-back to the slow movement’s cello solo manifested extreme delicacy, time for a moment suspended. Where many performances of this concerto come to grief is in the Allegretto grazioso finale which frequently sits oddly with the rest of the work – Lill’s success, without resort to excessive gemütlichkeit or idiosyncrasy, was that this movement assumed equal weight with what had gone before.
There was the odd quibble. Lill is a ‘big’ player and sometimes in his playing there is little to differentiate f from ff, a trait particularly noticeable in the first movement and he held too little in reserve for the scherzo’s closing pages, slipping the leash too soon (they are marked sempre più agitato – ever more agitated – which is not quite the same as sempre più presto). For the most part the orchestra accompanied with tact – a notably secure first horn – although under Thomas Sanderling’s plodding baton there was a tendency to get behind the beat and, by no stretch of the imagination, was Tim Gill, the cellist in the slow movement, remotely mezzo piano in his extended solo.
Listening to the opening deathbed paragraph of Tod und Verklärung, one’s thoughts turned to Corinthians XV: “Oh death, where is thy sting? Oh grave, where is thy victory?”. Hardly much shock and awe in this reading despite some fine individual contributions, notably the sensitive flute of Emer Mcdonough and some fine violin contributions from Boris Brovtsyn. Despite his illustrious pedigree, Thomas Sanderling is hardly a chip off the old block (he is one of the musician-sons of Kurt Sanderling), phlegmatically beating time so that most of the score’s inner tensions went for little and even the precise moment of transfiguration was less than clear.
Rather better – and rather better rehearsed – despite some occasionally tenuous ensemble was Till Eulenspiegel with its confident first horn from Tim Thorpe. If this Till was hardly an epigone of rapier-like wit, at least he was an amiable enough buffoon who surely didn’t deserve quite such an excruciatingly painful strangulation at the hands of the clarinet. Given that Brahms’s Second Piano Concerto should have pride of place, it would have been well to have turned the programme on its head, especially given Lill’s magisterial account of the solo part.