United Kingdom Brahms, Beethoven: John Lill (piano), BBC National Orchestra of Wales, Tadaki Otaka (conductor). St. David’s Hall, Cardiff. 9.5.2014 (PCG)
Brahms – Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op.15
Beethoven – Symphony No 7 in A, Op.92
I have several times in recent months had occasion to remark on the disappointingly small audiences for some adventurously programmed concerts in St David’s Hall – such as those given by the Simon Bolivár Youth Choir, the Basel concert of minimalist music and even the WNO Orchestra’s programme of Messiaen and Bruckner – and it was pleasing to note this concert of two old warhorses was positively packed. This may not just have been a matter of the programme, however, as the Brahms First Piano Concerto featured John Lill in his seventieth year giving a performance of the work which was directly in the central repertoire of his long career. His was an approach which treated the work in the vein of classical symphonism rather than a romantic barnstormer, with the piano integrated into the orchestra rather than predominating, as indeed Brahms clearly intended – but the result was certainly not devoid of drama.
More self-indulgent performers can sometimes make the lengthy concerto sound over-extended, killing the music with over-kindness, but this was definitely not the case here. In the second movement Lill and Otaka maintained a steady sense of purpose; the moments of stillness, warm but intense, were nonetheless given their full due. The result gripped the listener; and there was plenty of muscle too in the finale, well-integrated into the surging symphonic whole. From my seat somewhat behind the soloist, it was interesting to note the extreme rarity of Brahms’s passage-writing above the treble clef, with remarkably little use of the upper two octaves of the instrument when compared to the writing of more extrovert concertos. Lill and Otaka have collaborated on many recordings together, and clearly showed a sense of sympathy with each other.
As in the Brahms, the reduction of the string forces in the Beethoven Seventh Symphony might have resulted in a loss of tonal weight; but, given the present strength of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales players, there was no lack of body to the sound. On the other hand the gathering of the violins in a bunch on the left-hand side of the stage was perhaps unfortunate; it would have been preferable (particularly in this symphony) to allow for stereophonic interplay between the first and second violins, which would also have permitted the second violin lines to come across more distinctively. The dynamic Otaka pushed the slow introduction forward at a brisk pace, leading without a jolt into the Vivace main body of the first movement; and the exposition repeat was employed to add extra interest to the music. The Allegretto too was taken at a fair clip; and we were given the full quota of repeats in the scherzo, although the ritenuto just before the end of the first two repeats had an element of over-exaggeration with the music grinding almost totally to a halt. After this the finale was a positive whirlwind of excitement which brought the audience cheering to their feet.
The programme was recorded by the BBC for future transmission, and will be well worth while looking out for.
Paul Corfield Godfrey