RPO/Michalakis John Lill (1)

Piano Concerto No.2 in B flat, Op.83
Symphony No.4 in E minor, Op.98

John Lill (piano)

Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Nicholas Michalakis

Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey

Reviewed: 26 January, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London

A gratifyingly full house greeted John Lill for this first of two concerts in which he and Nicholas Michalakis perform Brahms.

As Lill’s recordings of Brahms make clear, he is a natural with this composer – big-boned, leonine even, but at the same time more than able to do full justice to the composer’s confidential inward-looking side. This combination of grandeur and intimacy served him particularly well in the B flat concerto (assigned here the opus number of 67, which is Brahms’s String Quartet No.3!). Seating less than 1,000 people, the relatively confined space of Cadogan Hall can be a difficult acoustic for an orchestra, especially in writing such as Brahms essayed in this work – and it is hugely to Lill and Michalakis’s credit (without any sense of reining the music in) that the music seldom sounded overbearing. In part this was thanks to the conductor’s care with dynamics, in part to Lill’s teasing out moments of delicacy in unexpected places (there is a surprising amount of dolce in the second movement scherzo whose treacherous sotto voce double octaves drew a particularly satisfactory response from Lill).

Elsewhere, Lill gave both magnificence in the first movement and wonderful questing at that magical moment of stillness before the cello’s return in the slow movement (although Tim Gill’s initial solo was consistently too loud). Michalakis’s accompaniment had many good things, particularly the beautifully phrased cantabile string lines, but also occasionally a tendency to get very slightly behind his soloist, most notably in the first movement. However, despite a few unwelcome frailties of execution – horns were not at their most secure and the RPO’s wind-tuning left something to be desired – this was still a deeply musical and bountiful rendition.

The Fourth symphony, also conducted from memory, received a distinctive reading, swifter than most – both at the work’s outset, which flowed inexorably onward, and also in the (here) sprightly scherzo. For the most part though this was mellow playing – even when the trombones finally make their contribution at the beginning of the finale; a welcome degree of understatement. Michalakis is a tasteful enough musician to avoid the sort of interpretative over-emphasis that frequently overtakes many conductors at significant moments – such as the close of the first movement; the final bars are often hammered out to their detriment, but not here.

On this occasion, however, for all the warmth of the RPO’s strings and the heartfelt singing quality found in the slow movement, there was a lack of the transparency that had been so notable a feature of Michalakis’s previous RPO performance of Brahms in this hall, the Second Symphony. Essentially, although this was a reading that flowed ideally, paragraphs flowing naturally, there was too little clarification of dynamics in the outer movements for the music’s grim inner-strength to register as fully as it can. As Karajan once commented, Brahms 4 is one of the few great symphonies to end in unmitigated tragedy.

Nonetheless this was definitely a real performance, and one looks forward to the Third Symphony coupled with John Lill in the First Concerto on 8 May.

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