With its hushed and ethereal beginning, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Schauspiel overture – written by the composer at 14 year old – opened proceedings. Perhaps not the most celebratory piece for a concert marketed as “John Lill at 75”, however it was superbly played by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra under Michael Seal. The moody opening gives way to some brighter episodes, which were kaleidoscopic in orchestral colour. The piece contains all the cinematic hallmarks of the later Korngold and the string players brought out a richness of sound. Rubato and changes of tempo were handled confidently in this polished reading.

John Lill © Askonas Holt
John Lill
© Askonas Holt

Tchaikovsky’s first Piano Concerto holds special memories for me, as it was in this hall as a 15 year old that I first heard it played live by another septuagenarian, the legendary Dame Moura Lympany. Like Lympany, John Lill made a stately entrance. From the opening phrase one realised he was not in for the bravado, highly virtuosic showpiece many pianists have turned this work into. What we got was a paced, thoughtful and authoritative performance throughout: the musicians were there to serve the music, not the other way around. This was not only refreshing but allowed musical detail – lost when taken at breakneck speeds – to be heard. As the broad opening faded never to return, the piano and orchestra sounded as one: the approach Lill took was one of equal partnership. There were some inaccuracies, but with playing as musical as this, one didn’t mind. As the movement progressed, there were ideas, phrases and melodies I was unaware of when overpowered by shows of blatant showmanship. In the cadenza Lill sparkled and showed what a skilled musician he is, one who knows how to balance the hands and sounds, textures and timbres of the piano: his left hand chords had a balance and richness and the right had a warmth of tone.

The second movement, like the first, lacked the speed one has come to expect. This more mature approach allowed space around the notes. There was a stillness, a chance to take stock again and consider whether this movement needs to be as quick as we often hear it. The central section was livelier and had a poetry about it, and a definite Russian quality. When the lyrical opening flute melody returns on the piano in the final section, ever-so-slightly quicker, there was a sense of completeness. The final movement showed that Lill had considered the work fully, peaking here. Whilst not blowing the cobwebs off with such speed again here, there was something authoritative and intensely musically satisfying about the experience. Lill returned four times to the stage, but no encore materialised: he left his audience wanting more.

After the interval, two pieces that didn’t complement the first half were performed. The first work was a joint RLPO/Royal Scottish National Orchestra/City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Euskadiko Orkestra Sinfonikoa commission from Gary Carpenter: Ghost Songs showcased two of the youth ensembles of the RLPO. This felt like the elephant in the programme: this cycle of six songs for children’s choir and orchestra felt three songs too long. The composer makes note of how some melodies reoccur in different songs, and whether it was the arrangement or the performers, on reaching the fourth song the work had become tiresome. There were some commendable moments with some very atmospheric passages in the first song “Dawn and Twilight”. The third song “On Some Ghostly Companions at a Spa” was the most rhythmic and engaging piece of the set, with elements of Stravinsky and Bernstein. Overall the children did a commendable job. The diction varied between crystal clear and incomprehensible. Without the lyrics, some sections were indistinguishable, which was disappointing. The tone of their voices was pure and the intonation secure. When singing in parts, the contrast between the older voices of the youth choir and the younger voices of the children’s choir didn’t sit entirely comfortably, with the younger voices occasionally lacking assurance – a particular problem in the final song “All Souls’ Eve”.

The theme of youth music was clear, however the programme went together like a horse and a go-cart. The final work was Britten’s orchestral showpiece The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. It was like the ghost of Flash Harry himself was here for this performance, as it was Malcolm Sargent who had given the premiere of this work with this orchestra in this very hall in 1946. The tempo was brisk – as one may expect – but the piece was superbly played, a work obviously deep in the soul of the RLPO. Seal conducted this with an infectious sense of fun and savoured every moment of this excellent and uplifting rendition.

***11