John Lill (b 1944) is one of the foremost British pianists
and this set of the Beethoven concertos was one which played a large
part in establishing his reputation. Since it was made he has recorded
the cycle a second time, in the early 1990s, I think, for Chandos. On
that occasion he was accompanied by Walter Weller and the CBSO.
Lill is no keyboard showman. His virtues include a
superb technique (which one almost takes as read at this level) allied
to a profound understanding of the music and a very high degree of musicianship.
All this is abundantly in evidence in these recordings. Happily he is
working here with a most sympathetic and reliable accompanist in the
doughty shape of Sir Alexander Gibson.
In the First Concerto the orchestra set off in sprightly
style and when Lill joins the argument his nimble articulation complements
the SNO’s playing very nicely. All concerned are attentive to dynamics
(this is a feature of the whole set, as is rhythmic accuracy). In the
Largo too we hear a true partnership. Lill brings graceful, beautiful
shaping to the opening and the orchestra answer in kind. Just as fine
as the very opening is the hushed close which features a beautifully,
languorous clarinet solo (CD1 track 3, 11’03"). The rondo finale
is heady stuff but though the music scampers along it is never pushed
at the expense of articulation.
The performance of the Second Concerto (actually, probably
the first to be composed) exhibits pretty much the same virtues. The
first movement is, I think, not as interesting musically as the comparable
movement in the First Concerto. However, it is very well played. Once
again, Lill is very effective in the slow movement where his playing
is poised and cultured. The concluding rondo is a delightfully skittish
episode and Lill and Gibson ensure that it fizzes along infectiously.
The Fourth Concerto is my personal favourite in the
canon and both pianist and conductor need to convey its serene strength.
Lill and Gibson meet the challenge convincingly. A dignified opening
by Lill is followed by a well-shaped orchestral ritornello. Throughout
the movement both Lill and his conductor are alive to the subtleties
of the score. Lill’s fingerwork is impeccable and he receives good support
from the SNO whose woodwind soloists particularly distinguish themselves.
The slow movement may be short but, of course, it is rhetorically substantial.
It lasts a mere 72 bars but Beethoven makes of this short span an oasis
of profound thought. The SNO strings open weightily, as they should,
but can’t deflect Lill from his serene course. His playing here is,
I think, quite marvellous, both noble and elevated. The short outburst
of trills (CD 2, track 5, 3’30") is all the more effective in the
context of the quiet poetry which has preceded it. The finale is lithe
and fluent, bringing to an end a deeply satisfying account of this most
thoughtful and thought-provoking of Beethoven’s concerti.
The Third Concerto is the most dramatic of the five.
The first movement is given its due weight, the tone set by the lengthy
orchestral introduction where we find accents and dynamics well observed.
I mentioned earlier that Lill is no mere showman. A small piece of evidence
in support of this is his first entry. After the soloist’s initial flourish
the next bars are marked piano. Many pianists provide a highly
dramatic contrast here. Not Lill. Indeed, it could be argued that he
only drops to mezzo piano (CD 3, track 1, 3’47"). The level
of dynamic doesn’t really matter so much, I think. What is the crucial
thing, I would suggest, is that Lill has an overview of the movement
and doesn’t wish to over-emphasise momentary details at the expense
of the whole. If, indeed, this is his approach then I greatly respect
it. But when quiet dynamics are crucial Lill doesn’t stint, as his hushed
and rapt opening to the second movement proves (CD 3, track 2). The
rondo is taken at a moderate tempo, slower than the equivalent movements
in the first two concerti. In this I’m sure the performers are right
for they have noted that by the time of the Third Concerto Beethoven
has moved on and his concerti now have a more serious, symphonic tone.
And so to the mighty ‘Emperor’. In this account the
first movement has leonine strength of purpose and great sweep. Lill’s
majestic playing is again underpinned most solidly by Gibson and the
SNO. At the core of the work is the serene, songful adagio which, in
the best performances, should be a lofty discourse. That is certainly
the case here. From the moment he begins to play (CD3, track 5, 1’39")
Lill displays calm dignity and great poetry. This is a most sensitive
account of the movement. The concluding rondo, which I think of as a
Dance of Heroes, is exultantly played by soloist and orchestra alike.
This is an ‘Emperor’ of great wisdom and no little vision.
The set also includes the Choral Fantasia. What
is one to make of this curious, hybrid work? It is part piano rhapsody,
part concerto, part run-through for the finale of the Ninth Symphony
and the extravagant forces required have undoubtedly conspired to make
it one of Beethoven’s less frequently played and most misunderstood
works (the singers, for example are required for only about the last
quarter of a twenty minute work). Actually, I think it’s a rather interesting
piece. Here Lill is imaginative and commanding in the lengthy opening
solo (CD1, track 1 to 3’33"). The following variations are well
played (are the orchestral soloists just a little artificially forward
in the sound picture, I wondered?). When the singers finally get their
chance (track 1, 15’42") they take it well and the music whirls
to a triumphant conclusion. I’m glad this work was not excluded from
the cycle, as is so often the case.
As I hope is clear from my comments above, I think
this is a most distinguished set. Lill is an excellent, thoughtful soloist
and he is clearly in tune with Gibson. The SNO may lack the weight and
last degree of polish and tonal refinement when compared with the likes
of the Vienna Philharmonic or the Concertgebouw which adorn, respectively,
Brendel’s cycle with Rattle or Perahia’s with Haitink. However, they
punch their weight and make a fine contribution to the success of this
The recorded sound is good. The orchestral lines are
clear and the balance between band and soloist is fine. There is a good,
informative note, in English only.
I’d rank this cycle by John Lill as among the best
currently before the public. In it he consistently displays questing
pianism and musicianship of great integrity. There’s virtuosity aplenty
but it’s always at the service of the music. Lill has clearly thought
long and hard about the music and what he has to say about it is of
consistent interest. He plays Beethoven’s own cadenzas.
The reappearance of this set is greatly to be welcomed,
especially at the CfP price. It seems to me to represent an outstanding
bargain. It is a set to which I know I will be returning often with
both respect and pleasure and I warmly recommend it.