What is it with British pianists that invite comparisons to the world of wine? In one of my first reviews at Bachtrack last year, I compared Benjamin Grosvenor to a young red. At last night’s concert, it struck me that the 70 year old John Lill may be aptly compared to one of the great Bordeaux – a Château Lafite or a Latour perhaps: profound, poetic and intense, whose grandest statements improve with the decades. With a career spanning over five decades, there was a concomitant depth and an architectural grandeur in Lill’s interpretation of the all-Beethoven programme in last night’s performance.

John Lill © Roman Goncharov
John Lill
© Roman Goncharov

Beginning and ending with two well-known sonatas, the Pathétique and the Appassionata, Lill chose two more recherché sonatas in between, the Pastoral and the Piano Sonata no. 22 in F major Op.54, the only one in this concert without a nickname. The ordering allowed us to trace Beethoven’s development of the form chronologically, while the choice of Op. 54 served to show how superior its sibling sonata, the Appassionata, is; both of which were written at the time when Beethoven was enjoying the society of the artistocratic Brunsvik family.

The opening of the Pathétique was as slow as I have ever heard it played, but what it lacked in forward motion, it more than made up for in gravitas. The mournful dotted opening was imbued with great pathos, while the poignant upper chords contrasted wonderfully with the harsh bass interjections. The virtuosic passagework of the Molto allegro section was fiery and nimble, showing that at 70, Lill has lost none of his pep. The gloriously moulded melody of the Adagio cantabile sang out with all the feeling and tenderness of a love song. Played with utmost simplicity Lill created an extraordinarily peaceful atmosphere. In the third movement Rondo, he captured the fleeting character wonderfully, flitting from key to key, delighting in the surprising modulations.

Lill’s account of the Pastoral possessed an inner stillness that is much called for in this reflective piece. It was immaculately phrased throughout, as Lill allowed the music to unfold. In the more angst-ridden middle section, the cresecendo grew organically erupting into fortissimo F sharp major chords. The playful mood of the scherzo was captured with all the rustic charm that is so characteristic of Beethovenian humour, while the fourth movement flowed freely on, impressing with the ease of his double octaves at the end.

Post interval, we had the recondite Op.54, a two movement sonata which mixes the gently restrained with the robust, the agitated moto perpetuo with the jocular. Lill successfully brought out all these contrasting elements, ending with an impressive virtuosic display, though not even this was enough to transform this abstruse oddity into something great.

Yet great and dramatic indeed is the sonata that follows it, the Appassionata. The tension of the opening, with its contrasting dynamics and keys, was somewhat disappointingly handled by Lill, but the second subject in A flat major possessed nobility, with its sonorous sound, the stormy arpeggios in the middle section suitably angry. Lill’s style throughout was one of restrained elegance, eschewing any movement that was not strictly necessary. As a result, the volcanic pent-up passion was even more frightening in its non-erupted state, as one could but wonder how fearsome it would be if he did let rip. The second movement acted as the much needed calm between the stormy outward movements. As in other lyrical moments, Lill allowed the music to speak for itself, simply and profoundly, without trying too hard. There were some finely graded nuanced lines of music in each of the variations. The third movement was driven relentlessly forward with its continuous semiquavers, the only pause being mid-way through with the gentle chords on the dominant. A brilliant coda followed: furious staccato chords and fiery filigree leading on to its breathless conclusion. A standing ovation was thoroughly merited, not only for this concert but for his over fifty years of music-making.