Sergei RAKHMANINOV (1873-1943)
The Great Works for Solo Piano and Paganini Rhapsody
Track-listing at end of review
John Lill (piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. 1994-1997. DDD
NIMBUS NI 1736 [4 CDs: 71:00 + 63:59 + 75:28 + 77:00]
John Lill was one of the first pianists I heard live Ė nearly 40 years ago Ė but for some reason Iíve not heard much of him since, either on record or in the concert hall. One CD that stands out is his reading of Malcolm Arnoldís Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, with Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic on the now defunct Conifer label (CDCF 224) but also in the Decca Arnold Edition. Itís a strong, stylish performance of a piece that really ought to be better known, Lill commanding respect and attention without drawing undue attention to his splendid technique. When it comes to Rachmaninov heís the very antithesis of, say, Nikolai Lugansky, whose big, bold versions of Opp. 33 and 39 Ė review Ė are nakedly virtuosic and, after a while, a tad relentless.
CD 1 kicks off with Rachmaninovís second piano sonata, as Ďrevised and reducedí by the composer in 1931. Immediately I was struck by Lillís supple delivery, which has plenty of sinew in climaxes. In quieter moments one might be tempted to think this music rather French, but thereís no denying the raw, Russianate cast of the grander ones. That said, the Nimbus recording is sensibly miked, so weight and detail are easily discerned without resorting to an aggressive, upfront presentation. The second movement is poetic and passionate, Lill striking a good balance between Florestan and Eusebius. In the Allegro molto Florestan is untrammelled, and one canít fail to be awed by the sheer heft of Lillís pianism, more so as power is never peddled at the expense of overall shape or inner detail.
Also included on this disc are the pieces based on themes by Corelli and Paganini; In the former Lill finds a pleasing equilibrium between baroque clarity and grace on the one hand and impetuous Romanticism on the other. Indeed, even-handedness is the guiding light of this collection, a welcome change from the oft-overheated, attention-seeking pianism one hears these days. As for the Paganini Rhapsody it has plenty of point and sparkle, but some may find the orchestra lacking in warmth and body; one could say the same about the piano, which is inclined to fierceness in the treble. Otherwise this is a perfectly respectable performance, if not as thrilling or as probing as Earl Wild and Jascha Horensteinís classic account on Chandos. You can also hear Lill in the four piano concertos on another well received Nimbus set.
CD 2 is devoted to the Opp. 33 and 39 Etudes-Tableaux, taut of rhythm and, in the mercurial No. 2 of Op. 33, wonderfully fluid. And while the piano sounds closer than before itís not overwhelmingly so; still, Rachmaninovís power chords and climaxes can be a tad intimidating at times. In many ways Lill is at his most beguiling in quieter, more rhapsodic pieces Ė sample the bell-like figures at the heart of Op. 33 No. 3 Ė but then heís simply dazzling in the fiery Op. 33 No. 7. The Op. 39 set are no less impressive, No. 1 as testosterone-engorged as Iíve ever heard it, the A minor Lento (No. 2) both emphatic and eloquent. And just listen to the infectious, Tchaikovskian rhythms of No. 4, the music admirably shaped and projected. All share that winning blend of fluency and thrust, Lill careful not to overdrive the dynamo that animates No. 8 or turn the pounding chords of No. 9 into jack-hammers.
In collections of this kind Iím always wary of a creeping sameness, a tendency to replace insight with bludgeon and bluster; Iím pleased to say thereís none of that here. Certainly not in CD 3, which contains the Opp. 23 and 32 Preludes. For me they represent the composer at his most intimate and intimidating; for instance, Op. 23 No. 2 is a terrifying mill-race, unerringly navigated, No. 4 a deceptive pond beneath which a powerful current still tugs amd teases. And how haughty the rhythms of No. 5, how brightly polished the little E flat minor (No. 9). Of the Op. 32 set, No. 5 is one of the most alluring, Lill finding just the right blend of gentle pictorialism and rhythmic rigour. Again, the piano is close, but it never becomes harsh or overbearing; still, the Preludes are best heard in separate sittings, for they are formidable works formidably played.
CD 4 begins with a nicely nuanced reading of the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, which has just enough of that necessary Ė and thrilling Ė bass weight. Dynamically itís convincingly contoured, a perfect precursor to the slightly later Six Moments musicaux. Even here thereís an alacrity and confidence to the writing thatís mirrored in Lillís handling of its changing moods and rhythms. At every turn this pianist outlines and illuminates, helped in no small measure by the clear Ė but very revealing Ė acoustic at Wyastone Leys. This collection ends with a compelling performance of the first sonata, which is hardly less accomplished than the later one. And to add to his many talents, Lill finds space and nobility in the Allegro moderato, long-breathed loveliness in the Lento and, in the Allegro molto, a mix of fire and ice. A perfect summation of Rachmaninovís art and Lillís interpretive range.
Itís never been a better time to buy cheap CDs Ė especially bargain sets like this one Ė as record labels saturate the market with material from their back catalogues. In the case of boxes thereís often too much chaff mixed in with the wheat, but Iím pleased to report that, with the possible exception of the rhapsody, that doesnít apply here.
Good playing, good recording and good value; donít hesitate.
Dan Morgan
Good playing, good recording and good value; donít hesitate.
CD 1
Sonata for Piano No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 (1913, rev, 1931) [27:15]
rec. 19 January 1994, Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, UK
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42 (1931) [19:40]
rec. Wyastone Leys, 15 January 1996
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43 (1934) [23:44]
BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka
rec. Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, 8 June 1995 
CD 2
9 Etudes-tableaux for Piano, Op. 33 (1911) [24:50]
9 Etudes-tableaux for Piano, Op. 39 (1917) [39:09]
rec. Wyastone Leys, 25-26 January 1995
CD 3
10 Preludes for Piano, Op. 23 (1901-1903) [34:25]
13 Preludes for Piano, Op. 32 (1910) [41:03]
rec. Wyastone Leys, 19-20 December 1996
CD 4
5 Morceaux de fantaisies, Op. 3 No. 2: Prelude in C sharp minor (1892) [4:37]
6 Moments musicaux, Op. 16 (1896) [31:23]
Sonata for Piano No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28 (1907) [41:00]
rec. Wyastone Leys, 26-27 March 1997