The second concert of John Lill’s Beethoven piano sonata cycle saw this national treasure back in the form that has earned him his reputation. After a slightly disappointing first outing, it was refreshing to hear such commitment throughout a concert, even in the smaller Piano Sonatas (nos. 3, 6 and 10); never did these earlier works feel lesser than their sprawling companion, Piano Sonata no. 21 in C major, ‘Waldstein’ (so-called after its dedicatee). Relishing Beethoven’s unheard-of piano textures and colours, and with deeply nuanced expression, this was a performance in which every note sounded fresh and totally original, as if we were hearing these works for the first time.

In fact, it was the ‘Waldstein’ that was for me the only disappointment of the evening. To be fair to Lill, this was absolutely thrilling playing from start to finish; I wonder if certain passages in the first movement have ever been faster. Lill’s freedom to change tempo for different themes meant there was lots of character throughout, and the opening movement set the bar very high for sheer vigour. However, a somewhat phlegmatic, didactic approach to articulation meant the intermezzo rather dragged and that the transition to the Rondo, where the clouds part and a radiant, mellifluous C major sunbeam shines through, rather lost its magic.

So with the Rondo, where a flowingly-paced theme inevitably gave way with little preparation to significantly slower episodes, meaning each transition in this music felt shrugged-off, matter-of-fact rather than spontaneous and logical. Particularly disappointing was the momentous passage leading to the coda, where arpeggios flood the keyboard in a thrilling, ecstatic torrent of sound, rendered a damp squib by a sluggish tempo and heavy execution. The coda was, to be fair to Lill, tremendously exciting at a breakneck tempo, even if enthusiasm and momentum meant the return of the rondo theme was, again, glossed over. Certainly, I cannot deny that I was electrified by the almost overdeterminedly positive finish, and a standing ovation (not to mention a little well-deserved applause after the first movement) from several audience members suggested it was a minority who shared my view on the performance.

If anything, it was Piano Sonata no. 6 in F major that deserved an ovation. From start to finish, this was a masterclass in the performance of this music, which stands at the precipice of leaving the merely Classical, incorporating the airy good humour of Beethoven’s teacher Haydn, as well as the sort of rapid but never grating musical change of which the elder composer was the undisputed king. In the first movement’s exposition, kaleidoscopic alterations of texture were never sacrificed under Lill’s guidance, even while he expertly handled the myriad colours Beethoven draws from the piano. Crucially, one always had a sense of gleeful abandon, particularly as the movement closed.

This happy unity of colour and argument made the slow movement, with its textures redolent perhaps of a string quartet and Schubertian harmonic wandering, a joy, and ‘abandon’ was certainly the word for the boisterous finale. One of Beethoven’s very best, this movement bounds, laughs, and shouts, all while glorying in sternest counterpoint – Haydn’s legacy once again felt. Lill’s performance was totally committed to the movement’s character, the tendency to rush during more complicated passagework only upping the excitement at an already hair-raising tempo. Wonderful, too, that there was never a line obscured; Beethoven’s skilful interweaving of melodies was on full display, and what a display it was!

Piano Sonata no. 3 in C major also benefited from Lill’s attention to its colour and character. In the first movement – one that could be straight from a piano concerto, complete with cadenzas – orchestral and piano entries were clearly audible through Lill’s nuanced tone. The cadenzas were humorously dashed off at breakneck speed, and Beethoven’s almost absurdly thick, orchestral piano textures were handled marvellously. It was colour and articulation that really made this performance special, from the gorgeous, lyrical tone Lill found in the slow movement, to the almost Schubertian outbursts of vehemence in the finale.

The unfortunately neglected Piano Sonata no. 10 in G major, generally too short and seemingly simplistic to receive as much attention as the other works on the programme, here received just as committed a performance as all the music surrounding it, to revelatory effect. Lill’s playing completely transformed from the grand, sonorous manner of the first half, he now found instead a delicate lyricism which was profoundly compelling, even in such apparently untroubled, straightforward music. With excellent contrasts of articulation and highly expressive manipulation of tempo (particularly in the first movement), this was yet more evidence of a fearsome command and understanding of this music. Even with a slightly disappointing Waldstein, the performance of the early sonatas was superb, and a privilege to hear.