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Brahms: Handel Variations, Intermezzi; Schumann / John Lill

Release Date: 04/25/2006 
Label:  Signum Classics   Catalog #: 75   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Robert SchumannJohannes Brahms
Performer:  John Lill
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
In Stock: Usually ships in 24 hours.  

Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRAHMS Intermezzi, op. 117. Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel, op. 24. SCHUMANN Fantasie in C, op. 17 ? John Lill (pn) ? SIGNUM 075 (77:08)

John Lill has not been heard from a lot lately, and we are the poorer for it; for here is a pianist possessed of a prodigious technique that, in my experience, he has always employed Read more as handmaid to perfect manners, grace, and style. In my collection is Lill?s Chandos CD (still available) of Beethoven?s complete bagatelles, a recording of great charm, wit, and beauty; and an ASV disc of solo piano works by Prokofiev, which gives full vent to Lill?s impressive technique, while at the same time illustrating the richness of his tonal palette and aptitude for musical characterization. But these offerings go back a decade or more, and if Lill has been busy in the recording studio in the interim, I?m not personally aware of many recent releases. That makes this new one from Signum Classics most welcome.

Effusive Romantic ardor is the description that comes to mind in listening to Schumann?s youthful Fantasie in C. Begun in 1836 when the composer was 26 and sick in love with the still teenaged Clara, the piece was originally to have been a one-movement affair expressing Schumann?s unhappiness and anxiety at being forbidden by Clara?s father to see her. We know how futile that was. But Schumann?s fevered brain was temporarily refocused on a project initiated by Liszt to raise funds for a Beethoven memorial. In the course of this effort, he fleshed out the piece with two additional movements, thinking to publish it as a ?Sonata for Beethoven.? But Schumann?s publisher at the time, Kistner, was not interested. It wasn?t until 1839 that Breitkopf & Härtel picked it up and put it out with its current title.

Lill launches into the piece with great passion, capturing all the angst of the young composer hopelessly in heat. The performance tugs at the heart and makes the pulse race. It is a reading at once dramatic and bold, yet lovingly caressed and cared for. I listened to it three times in a row before moving on to the Brahms.

If Schumann?s Fantasie is all about love?s delights and pleasures eagerly anticipated, Brahms?s three Intermezzi, op. 117?among the composer?s final utterances?are reflections of love lost, or worse, love never known. No other composer, except possibly for Schubert, ever expressed in music such an aching sense of loneliness, loss, and regret. It occurred to me as I listened to these pieces that they pick up where Schubert?s Winterreise leaves off. What happens to the forsaken, forlorn traveler, and where does he go, after he and his songs vanish, along with the organ grinder, into the winter whiteness? Brahms?s op. 117, that?s where. Again, Lill captures just the right mood?somewhere beyond sorrow in a place too personal and too private even for Schubert?s ?frozen tears.?

From early on, variations were central in Brahms?s arsenal of compositional techniques, and the grand Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Handel (1861) from the pen of the not yet 30-year-old composer, while far from his first foray into the form, was certainly the most ambitious and the finest he had written to date. It is closer in conception and spirit to Beethoven?s Diabelli Variations than it is to the Paganini Variations set that would follow almost immediately on its heels, or to the Schumann Variations of several years later.

Lill goes head to head here against some phenomenal recordings of the Handel Variations , among which are those by Julius Katchen, Leon Fleisher (available in a specially priced two-CD set that includes the two concertos conducted by Szell?my longtime recommended version), and David Korevaar (reviewed in 29:2). I wish I could say Lill surpasses or even matches them, but alas, some of the more difficult passages (and they abound) are marred by fingerwork that is smudged and loosely controlled. Listen, for example, to the whole of Variation XIV (track 21). Given Lill?s outstanding delivery of Schumann?s Fantasie, which is also very technically taxing, I doubt that the Brahms gaffes are evidence of a general decline. Rather, I suspect that Lill, at least in this recording, does not relate as well to the intellectual rigors of Brahms?s Variations as he does to Schumann?s emotional outpourings and to Brahms?s much later introspective ruminations.

Still, the less-than-perfect reading of the Handel Variations should not put this recording out of court. The Schumann and Brahms op. 117 set are wonderful and well worth the price of the disc.

FANFARE: Jerry Dubins
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Works on This Recording

Phantasie for Piano in C major, Op. 17 by Robert Schumann
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1836-1838; Germany 
Venue:  The Old Market, Hove, East Sussex, Engla 
Notes: The Old Market, Hove, East Sussex, England (01/11/2000 - 01/13/2000) 
Variations and Fugue for Piano in B flat major on a theme by Handel, Op. 24 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1861; Germany 
Venue:  The Old Market, Hove, East Sussex, Engla 
Notes: The Old Market, Hove, East Sussex, England (01/11/2000 - 01/13/2000) 
Intermezzi (3) for Piano, Op. 117 by Johannes Brahms
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Austria 
Venue:  The Old Market, Hove, East Sussex, Engla 
Notes: The Old Market, Hove, East Sussex, England (01/11/2000 - 01/13/2000) 

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