John Lill (b. 1944) has a well-deserved reputation as one of the
leading British pianists of today. I’ve particularly admired him
over the years for his performances of Beethoven
composers whose music seems particularly suited to his thoughtful
musicianship and his great musical integrity. But one should never
forget his affinity with Russian music – at the age of just eighteen
he played the Rachmaninov Third Concerto with Sir Adrian Boult
– or that he achieved a considerable success in winning the 1970
Moscow International Tchaikovsky Competition. This reissue of
his recordings of Rachmaninov’s works for piano and orchestra,
all made in the 1990s, is very welcome, therefore. It also offers
a pleasing reminder of the partnership between the BBCNOW and
their then-Principal Conductor, Tadaaki Otaka.
As I sat down to type this review – in other words, when my listening
was finished and my judgements formed – a quick search on MusicWeb
International Seen and Heard led me to a review by my colleague,
Bob Briggs of a concert last autumn at which Lill played the Rachmaninov
Third concerto. You can read Bob’s views in full here
but it’s worth noting a couple of his comments. He had this to
“John Lill is, without a doubt, one of the finest pianists at
work today and his undemonstrative appearance on the stage belies
a fiercely passionate and romantic temperament…..Tonight’s performance
of Rachmaninov’s most famous work gained from Lill’s understatement,
his refusal to appear as the virtuoso solely for the sake of virtuosity,
his command of colour and expression and the most exciting, and
careful, use of rubato.”
When I read those words, and particularly the second sentence,
I realised that Bob had really hit the nail on the head in terms
of my own reaction to these performances. These recordings may
not necessarily displace some of the classic renditions of these
works – and everyone will have their own favourites – but they
are consistently satisfying and reveal the music to the listener
faithfully and without unnecessary ostentation. Lill’s exemplary
technique means that he is equal to all the prodigious technical
demands of these works and he is on top of the music intellectually
The Third Concerto – my own favourite among the four – is a conspicuous
success. Lill has the measure of the enormous first movement and
his playing has great sweep and command, as well as the necessary
power. He plays the towering longer cadenza (10:53 – 15:40) and
he does so majestically. My son, a pianist himself, listened to
this recording and marvelled at the richness and depth of Lill’s
tone in the cadenza. The remainder of the concerto is no less
fine: the slow movement is poetically lyrical while the finale
has flair and drive.
Lill and Otaka make a very good job of the Second Concerto and
are particularly successful in making this oh-so-familiar work
seem unhackneyed. The Big Tune in the finale is given its full
value but is never overblown, even at the very end of the movement.
I enjoyed the slow movement very much. Here the wistful mood is
admirably conveyed; the start of the movement features fine solo
work from the principal flute and clarinet players and when the
lovely main theme reappears in the closing minutes the delicacy
of the violin tone is delightful.
The reading of the ‘Paganini’ Rhapsody is also very rewarding.
One may have heard versions with greater surface brilliance but
Lill isn’t that kind of artist. He points the livelier variations
very acutely while the more reflective passages are sympathetically
delivered. I admired his unforced lyricism at the start of Variation
18, which is picked up by Otaka and the orchestra. In this variation
the musicians let the music speak for itself – a characteristic
of this whole set - and the performance is all the more satisfying
Is there a snag? Well perhaps. To my ears, in all five concerted
works the orchestra is too backwardly recorded in an obviously
empty hall. Thus, I don’t find that the orchestral parts register
as well as they should, especially when the piano is playing –
Lill is quite forward in the sound picture. I’d prefer to hear
a more integrated sound in which the orchestra is properly in
partnership with the soloist. Other listeners may disagree – or
achieve different results on their own equipment – but I think
it’s a pity one doesn’t hear more of the orchestra because they
play very well. That said, I wouldn’t regard the sonic balance
as a reason not to invest in this set.
Most complete sets of the Rachmaninov concertos come in two-disc
boxes, devoted solely to the works for piano and orchestra. Nimbus
do something a bit different, expanding the set to three discs
and including two substantial solo works, the Second Sonata and
the ‘Corelli’ Variations. I should point out that this approach
may involve collectors in an element of duplication since Nimbus
have also issued a four-disc set of Lill’s recordings of the composer’s
solo piano works (NI 1736), which also includes both these pieces
– rather strangely, the ‘Paganini’ Rhapsody is also included in
that set. However, the inclusion of these two solo pieces in this
present set is no mere caprice: their inclusion – and indeed the
places each occupies on the discs – is very apposite.
The Second Sonata, which John Lill plays in the original version
rather than Rachmaninov’s 1931 revision, shares a disc with the
Third concerto. That’s intelligent because, as John Pickard points
out in his notes, the sonata and the concerto share a number of
formal features and I think a listener who is unaware of those
features will, in any case, notice a certain stylistic affinity
between the two works. I admired Lill’s account of the sonata
very much. He’s fully responsive to its virtuoso stretches – not
least the bravura episodes in the finale – but it’s the thoughtful,
brooding passages that abound in all three movements that find
him at his very best. His reading of the wistful second movement
is particularly impressive.
The ‘Corelli’ Variations are shrewdly placed before the Paganini
Rhapsody on disc three and this opportunity to hear the two works
cheek by jowl, as it were, shows the affinity between them; certain
variations, such as numbers X and XVIII may remind listeners of
the Rhapsody. Corelli’s theme is simple and quite austere – and
bears more than a passing resemblance to the Paganini theme –
yet it affords Rachmaninov the springboard for twenty compact
variations, as well as a short Intermezzo, between Variations
XIII and XIV, and a coda. The variations, though mainly quite
short, are very inventive and always manage to keep the theme
in view. Lill offers a masterly performance and he’s very successful
in characterising and contrasting the individual variations –
for example the mysterious Variation VIII, following hot on the
heels of the extrovert Variation VII. This ability to bend with
the winds of Rachmaninov’s inspiration means that on the one hand
we can enjoy his limpid tone in Variation XV and then relish the
strength with which he delivers the powerful Variations XIX and
XX before the brief, calm coda.
This is a very enjoyable, rewarding set. Collectors who already
have one or more recordings of these works in their collections
will find much to savour and enjoy in Lill’s pianism. On the other
hand, though these performances may not tell the whole story,
anyone wanting to acquire recordings of these pieces for the first
time will find John Lill – and Tadaaki Otaka, for that matter
– a reliable and rewarding guide.
Rob Barnett has also listened to these discs:-
Expectations might be dampened by the opinions of ‘authorities’
on recorded classical music. The great and good in some quarters
have had little enthusiastic to say about these recordings.
It's time to give these now 15+ year old recordings a new jury.
John Lill has been taken for granted as must often be the fate of those who have been in the public eye since the 1960s. He was a young firebrand who early on recorded many of the classical icons for LP labels such as Enigma and CFP.
In these five concerted works Lill’s manly and ursine weightiness of delivery complements Rachmaninov ideally. Lill and Otaka favour the pesante approach. The accent is on grandeur and the music blossoms under such craft and philosophy. As we hear in the glitter of the finale of the Second Concerto neither Lill nor Otaka are indissolubly wedded to the wider span; there’s brilliance aplenty but sparingly applied. The same can be heard in the flinty and lop-tangled grandiloquence of the Tchaikovskian First Concerto (1:00). My, how good the piano sounds in this recording! This work is to be savoured in the company of the concertos by Scriabin, Glazunov and Arensky.
CD 2 starts with the brooding propulsion and explosive carillon of the Second Sonata. The Third Concerto stays fairly low key - if you want higher jinks then go for Feltsman (Nimbus), Argerich, Horowitz (I like his late version with Philadelphia) and Earl Wild (Chesky or Chandos). Lill and Otaka aim for and bring off an evocative synthesis of majesty and melancholy. Otaka keeps things taut and there's some very exciting dry playing from the violins and hoarsely euphoric work from the brass. The finale of the Third Concerto is gloriously rendered through Lill's large-scale saturnine piano and Otaka's possessed yet alert direction - those horns at 13.44!
The last disc mixes very familiar with very unfamiliar. Ever since hearing Michelangeli's classic version of the Fourth with Ettore Gracis (EMI ) I have never been able to resist that heart-filling rising-surging opening gesture. Like the First, the Fourth is treasurable and full of gestures we can relate to more familiar works of earlier years. The quicksilver sadness of the strings at 9:10 onwards remains irresistible. Those horns again at 9:11 in the finale - they are given such fine eminence!
Then come two sets of variations. The Corelli Variations, were like the Second Sonata, recorded at the Wyastone Concert Hall. It’s a venue now favoured by the likes of Naxos while the orchestral works are from the splendidly alive Brangwyn Hall. The Corelli set are in a single track; a shame that they are not separately tracked. Then again neither is the famous Paganini set which carries over all the same broadly stated qualities that make the other concertante works so stirring and muscular.
For those wishing the full conspectus two other Nimbus Rachmaninov sets are worth your appraisal: NI1736 (4 CDs, Preludes, Etudes-Tableaux, two Sonatas, Moment Musicaux, Corelli and Paganini variations) and going in the other direction (NI1786 3 CDs) Otaka's three symphonies, Isle of the Dead, Vocalise and the Etudes-Tableaux gloriously orchestrated by Respighi. Nor had Nimbus ignored Rachmaninov before the Otaka project. I recall an LP by Marta Deyanova of the Preludes - very distinguished too once you can get over the strange fixation some reviewers had and have with the Nimbus sound. There is ever so much to enjoy on the showing of the present concertos set.
The excellently complementary notes are by composer John Pickard whose music is now to be heard on Bis and Dutton Epoch.