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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Piano Concerto No 1 in C major, Op. 15 [37’40"]**
Piano Concerto No 2 in B flat major, Op. 19 [29’44"]***
Piano Concerto No 4 in G major, Op. 58 [34’12"]***
Piano Concerto No 3 in C minor, Op. 37 [36’47"]****
Piano Concerto No 5 in E flat major, ‘Emperor’ Op. 73 [40’05"]*****
Fantasia in C minor for piano, chorus and orchestra, Op. 80 [19’49"]*
John Lill (piano)
Scottish National Orchestra *and Chorus
Conducted by Sir Alexander Gibson
Recorded in the City Hall, Glasgow, * and **28 and 29 December 1974; *** December 1975; **** June 1975; ***** April 1974
CLASSICS FOR PLEASURE 7243 5 75752 2 5 [57’38" + 64’06" + 77’00"]

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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 enterprise.

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.

John Quinn

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