Pianist John Lill Evokes the Spirit of Curzon

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Schumann, Prokofiev, Brahms, and Beethoven: John Lill (piano), Benaroya Hall, Seattle, 30.4.2014 (BJ)


Mozart: Sonata in F major, K. 332
Schumann: Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Op. 26
Prokofiev: Toccata, Op. 11
Brahms: Three Intermezzos, Op. 117
Beethoven: Sonata in F minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”

This being my last review written in Seattle before moving back to Philadelphia, it is a pleasure to be able to close out nearly nine seasons of mostly splendid concert-going in this cultivated and enlightened Northwestern city on a note of unalloyed enthusiasm. The pleasure is in no way surprising, for in his dignified and unidiosyncratic yet deeply thoughtful way, John Lill has consistently shown himself throughout a long career to be one of the most civilized and satisfying pianists before the public—a worthy successor, one might say, to the late, great Clifford Curzon.

His program for this recital was ingeniously designed rather along the lines of a Bartókian arch form: classical Mozart and Beethoven at beginning and end, enclosing a romantic pairing of Schumann and Brahms, with a brief but potent outburst of 20th-century virtuosity from Prokofiev in the middle.

To say that the Prokofiev and the outer movements of the Schumann were exhilarating would be a massive understatement. In these parts of the recital, the astonishment factor ruled—how is it possible for one man’s two hands to produce such overwhelmingly brilliant textures? The five-movement Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival Jest from Vienna, listed in the program for some incomprehensible reason in misspelled French as Carnival de Vienne) is not Schumann at his greatest, but Lill brought the requisite rhythmic vigor and clarity of articulation to the fast movements, and captured well the lyrical intimacy of the Romanze.

Mozart demands more than relatively minor Schumann in the way of delicacy and nuance, and got it. Lill’s playing of the superb F-major Sonata, K. 332, was graceful, poised, and perceptive, and there’s no contradiction in saying it was also big-boned and very masculine—none of that clapped-out, walking-on-eggshells style of Mozart pianism that was drearily popular half a century ago. The intricately embellished melodic line of the central Adagio was beautifully phrased. Second-half repeats in the outer movements were omitted—in the finale perhaps justifiably (if it is ever justifiable to overrule the instructions of a great composer) so as not, by repetition, to subject a dramatic effect near the end to the law of diminishing returns.

The second half of the program began with a searching and profound reading of the three Intermezzos that make up Brahms’s Opus 117. The “Appassionata” performance that followed was again, like Prokofiev’s Toccata but to richer musical effect, a big thriller. I was mightily impressed by all the razzmatazz virtuosity that Lill displayed with apparent ease in such music. But it was the playing of the Mozart, the Brahms, and the middle movement of the Beethoven that I really loved, so the choice of encore was welcome and wonderfully appropriate. Here, in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata, Op. 13, Lill contrived to avoid a facile crescendo up to the top note of the main theme, yet without ever sounding mannered or repetitive, by withdrawing tone at the peak of the phrase with a subtly different nuance each time.

Bernard Jacobson


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