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Rossini, Rachmaninov and Rimsky–Korsakov: John Lill (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Josep Caballé–Domenech, Royal Albert Hall, London, 22.10.2010 (BBr)


Rossini: The Barber of Seville Overture (1816)

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, op.18 (1900/1901)

Rimsky–Korsakov: Scheherazade, op.35 (1888/1889)


Half way through the slow movement of the Rachmaninov Concerto, I realised that I was not listening to a pianist, but a true artist, someone who has given himself wholly to the music he is playing, and immersed himself in the fabric of the piece and is living every second of it. John Lill is, without a doubt, one of the finest pianists at work today and his undemonstrative appearance on the stage belies a fiercely passionate and romantic temperament. I was reminded of that aristocrat of the piano – Solomon; a man who couldn’t play an ugly note, whose phrasing was impeccable, and who was always the servant of the composer. John Lill has the same outlook and prodigious abilities. Tonight’s performance of Rachmaninov’s most famous work gained from Lill’s understatement, his refusal to appear as the virtuoso solely for the sake of virtuosity, his command of colour and expression and the most exciting, and careful, use of rubato. Caballé–Domenech and the Royal Philharmonic were as one with Lill, working together to ensure that what is too often accepted as an old warhorse emerged as a fine young stallion. It’s performances as good as this which make concert going such a joy for me.

Caballé–Domenech’s view of Scheherazade was full of colour, but it was never gaudy. Leader Duncan Riddell took the part of the heroine with a nicely commanding tone, letting us know that she wasn’t going to take any rubbish from the Sultan, and she had the strength of purpose to keep her head – literally. He was beautifully assisted in the storytelling by harpist Suzy Willison–Kawalec. Each movement was well defined, with plenty of drama in the first picture – The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship – and lots of tension and alarm in The Story of the Kalender Prince. The Young Prince and the Princess was a delicate love scene, and The Festival at Baghdad was a pell–mell race, which culminated in the catastrophe of the Shipwreck. The ending was magical in its utter simplicity. This was a very fine performance with well chosen tempi, and excellent characterisation from the soloists within the orchestra.

Rossini’s Barber of Seville Overture got things off to a cracking start. Watch out for the Royal Philharmonic this season because this is a group of musicians on top form.

Bob Briggs


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