JOHN LILL – piano

Wednesday 14th May 2014

Mozart – Sonata in F K332

Brahms – Variations & Fugue on a Theme of Handel op.24

Beethoven  – Sonata in B flat op.106 Hammerklavier

John Lill’s concert career spans over 55 years. His rare talent emerged at an early age – he gave his first piano recital when only 9. In 1970 he won the most coveted of prizes, the Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition, further consolidating his already busy international concert schedule.

Mozart’s sonata, the best known of the set of three, combines great beauty and elegance with extraordinary harmonic development particularly in the use of minor eys. The distinguished music writer, Donald Tovey, ranked Brahms’ Handel Variations amongst "the half-dozen greatest sets of variations ever written". The piano was Beethoven’s natural expressive outlet, and by all accounts he was a formidable pianist. Ending with an immense fugue, the Hammerklavier has a vast, awesome and monumental beauty.


A stupendous concert to end the season

At the end of the evening there was a standing ovation; that has never happened before in these concerts and they have been going since 1946! And it wasn’t as if the programme set out to be a crowd-pleaser, indeed I was told that John Lill was concerned that his programme might be too much on the heavy side. He ended with Beethoven’s huge Hammerklavier sonata, a forty-five minute epic, having already played demanding music before the interval. His platform manner is undemonstrative, nothing flash or attention-seeking. But when those amazing fingers touch the keys something quite remarkable happens. Asked to name the great pianists of the age many would list those star artists assiduously promoted by the major record companies; but make no mistake, John Lill is their equal as this concert amply demonstrated.

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He began with Mozart’s Sonata K332. In the context of this programme it was right to give it a relatively restrained classical reading yet there was no lack of character in the approach and the finale, very quick as Mozart asks, had wonderful clarity.

The sound world of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Handel is very different, rich and weighty and John Lill unleashed all the power at his command in striking contrast to what we’d just heard. There are twenty five short variations and in less skilled hands the work can seem bitty, but not on this occasion, such was the way the performance was structured, each variation skilfully linked to its neighbour. The final fugue was magnificently played, the hall’s piano responding heroically to the demands made on it.

And so to the Hammerklavier. No need to pick over the niceties of the performance; as someone said afterwards ‘at times it was as if Beethoven himself was playing’. The audience was held spellbound through the slow movement’s twenty minute duration, I’ve rarely experienced such stillness and concentration in a concert hall. What a privilege and a joy for us to be there.


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Recommended Recordings



I recommend two 5 CD sets of the complete Piano Sonatas, each costing around the price of one full price disc. The first, by Klára Würst on Brilliant Classics 94034, has had many favourable reviews and is very well recorded. Alicia de Larrocha on Sony 88883798592 has a slightly more romantic approach, and again, is well recorded.

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John Lill has made a very fine recording on Signum Classics SIGCD 075 (full Price). The couplings are Brahms Intermezzi, Op.117 and Schumann’s Fantasy in C. A very cheap, but excellent, version has recently been reissued on Decca Virtuoso 4785404. The pianist is Stephen Kovacevich, and the filler is Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 with the London S.O. conducted by Sir Colin Davis.


Perhaps the best recording that Sviatoslav Richter made whilst visiting the UK was of a live concert, including this work, on 18th. June 1975. The performance is outstanding in every way, and the sound quality is very good, on ICA Classics ICAC 5084 (full price). The couplings are Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.3 and some Bagatelles. Should you prefer a more modern recording, the young pianist Igor Levit has started, what I hope will be, a complete recording of the Beethoven Sonatas. Piano Sonatas Nos. 28-32 are included on a Sony 2 disc set (88883747352-budget price). The recording quality is excellent, and the performances are right up there with those of the great pianists of the past.

John Lill’s very fine recordings of Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas have been deleted, but individual discs are still available via internet retailers.

Raymond Waud

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