Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Op.15
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
John Lill (piano)
Royal Philharmonic Orchestra
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 8 May, 2007
Venue: Cadogan Hall, London
It’s rare indeed that the peaceful all-passion-spent close of Brahms’s Third Symphony ends a concert (it’s more usually an end-of-part-one piece), so it was good to hear it properly placed at this concert, a reflective corollary to the younger composer’s epic and heroic D minor Piano Concerto.
This was the second of two concerts in which Nicholas Michalakis and John Lill have performed Brahms’s two piano concertos. The performance of the concerto here rather eclipsed the symphony. There was a lack of orchestral drama in both works. The symphony needs greater personal identification than Michalakis was able to give it, and although he kept the symphony on the move, there was a tendency to sight-see (most ruinously in the passages, taken noticeably slower, that lead up to the first movement recapitulation, and the repeat of the exposition seemed superfluous given there was nothing different to ‘say’ second time round). The middle movements also had a tendency to ‘drag’ the tempo, which would have been fine if there had been more emotional tension to sustain such fluctuations. Those inner movements fared well, though, being very expressive and blessed with some excellent woodwind and horn solos. The playing of the strings and brass was not quite as notable: a little unkempt from the former and coarse-grained from the latter. However, the symphony’s contemplative final bars were gently inflected and quite affecting.
Also conducting from memory, Michalakis sustained a well-prepared ‘accompaniment’ in the concerto, but his involvement was again rather objective and Cadogan Hall doesn’t always favour a symphony orchestra, rendering it rather dry and hard-sounding. Tempos were well judged, though, being ideally ‘Maestoso’ in the first movement, convincingly very slow in the Adagio, and energised in the finale.
Brahms’s D minor Concerto has been central to John Lill’s repertoire for many years. He remains one of its keenest champions and presented here a magnificent performance. Maybe the best compliment one can give is to say that he reminded what a great work this is. The notes are completely in Lill’s head, heart and fingers and his musical integrity and wholeness of vision was deeply satisfying. This was a confiding, courageous and lucid account of the solo part, the sections of the first movement (not least the chorale theme) welded into one. Subtlety of touch and the finest of feelings brought out the sadness of the ‘religious’ slow movement (decidedly rapt at times, and with a flute note that simply refused to sound from the lady’s instrument!). The finale had vigour and expansiveness and a cadenza that emotionally and structurally proved to be the work’s pinnacle. No doubt Lill was analysing his performance afterwards and may have a different view – but this was a rendition of outstanding musicianship founded on a superbly maintained technique and unflinching dedication.