The first of concert of John Lill’s Beethoven piano sonata cycle at Cadogan Hall saw a warhorse of the concert platform performing one of the great warhorses of the piano repertory. Alongside the concluding Op. 57 sonata – the Appassionata – we heard three lesser-known works, namely Op. 10 no. 3 in D, Op. 22 in B flat, and Op. 54 in F, presented in chronological order. Introducing Lill’s idiosyncratic programming, chosen, according to his prefatory note, to demonstrate in each concert something of the progression of Beethoven’s style, the earliest sonata came first and the Appassionata last, the latter paired with the practically unheard Op. 54 after the interval. Although a reasonable idea to ensure variety in each of a whopping eight concerts, such “big names last” programming often leads to a lack of focus in the earlier works on the programme, and the disparity in standard between first and second halves was rather disappointing, particularly from one who puts Beethoven first in his repertoire to such an extent as Lill.

John Lill © Roman Goncharov
John Lill
© Roman Goncharov

Not even the least worrying things were the memory slips, which first manifested in the development section of Op. 10 no. 3’s first movement and by the recapitulation of Op. 22’s opening movement nearly brought the performance to a halt. A passage in the latter’s slow movement became a pot-pourri of harmonies not quite close enough to what Beethoven wrote to be convincing, and seemed to put Lill as much on edge as the audience. Tellingly, there were none in the second half. Memory slips are almost forgiveable in such an ambitious project as Lill’s, but it is the pianist that puts the pedal down, and excess pedalling rendered much of the passagework throughout the concert unclear, not helped by an often excessive touch in the bass rendering the treble inaudible, particularly noticeable in the often delicate but difficult figuration of Op. 22.

There were, to be fair, moments when a weighty tone was tremendously effective. Op. 10 no 3’s great slow movement – marked, unusually, “slow and sad” – was shatteringly, arrestingly despondent, particularly when the theme returns with low, over-filled chords, which sounded under Lill’s fingers for all the world like a great tolling bell. Op. 57’s finale was suitably cataclysmic, and the staccato outbursts of Op. 54 vigorous. Even in quieter music, the rich sound of the nearly septuagenarian pianist projected admirably, especially at the opening of Op. 22’s slow movement, which had definite orchestral shading, sonorous string chords pulsating underneath a warm woodwind melody. More impressive still were the moments when Lill demonstrated a more delicate tone; the return of the same opening sounded like a different instrument altogether.

However, a lack of characterisation meant the first half tended to sound rather anaemic and dull, particularly in quick music, energy lacking where, as in the first movements of the two works in question, it is most necessary. Far more fascinating than yet another Appassionata are these early works, a Classical idiom stretched and intensified practically beyond recognition, particularly Op. 22’s almost absurdly chromatic finale, ruthlessly mocking Classical ornament. Absent were vigour, display, wit; this despite Lill’s programme note (overstating as ever classical music’s humorous potential) speaking of the Beethoven sonatas’ “hysterically comical” turns. Played well, these pieces abound with astonishment at the musical possibilities being discovered by a prodigious young composer – Lill sounded like he was just going through the motions.

The interval break could not rouse Lill’s enthusiasm for the yet more bizarre Op. 54, a two-movement oddity which explores the timbral possibilities of the piano through constant changes of register, articulation, and mood. Lill’s broad tone, though with its appeal with in the stormier rondo episodes, was not quite varied enough for music which changes colour so rapidly and in such stark fashion.

The Appassionata – perhaps the most purely dramatic of any of the piano sonatas – was, then, always going to be good, but Lill offered nothing new or particularly interesting to this work’s rich interpretive history. There were, it must be said, especially admirable moments, such as the steady first-movement tempo, by which Lill gave himself ample space for highly expressive playing. All in all this was very difficult to fault; the first and last movements were thrillingly hard-edged and muscular, the second, if rather more Lutheran than lyrical, was clearly part of a unified tragic trajectory, the playing immaculate and much more energetic than before. In such a well-known work, though, Lill’s reading was also difficult to recommend, interesting only inasmuch as a pianist hammering a low F will always be interesting. In his programme note, he denigrates the idea of “interpretation”, suggesting he doesn’t want to “get in the way” of Beethoven; as yet another Appassionata wheeled to a noisy close, though, I found myself wishing that he would.