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Rachmaninov: Great Works For Solo Piano / John Lill


Release Date: 04/03/2001 
Label:  Nimbus   Catalog #: 1736   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill
Conductor:  Tadaaki Otaka
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 4 Hours 53 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Good playing, good recording and good value; don’t hesitate.

John Lill was one of the first pianists I heard live – nearly 40 years ago – but for some reason I’ve not heard much of him since, either on record or in the concert hall. One CD that stands out is his reading of Malcolm Arnold’s Fantasy on a Theme of John Field, with Vernon Handley and the Royal Philharmonic on the now defunct Conifer label (CDCF 224) but also in the Decca Arnold Edition. It’s a strong, stylish performance of a piece that really ought to be better known, Lill commanding respect and attention without drawing undue attention to his splendid technique. When it comes to Rachmaninov he’s the very antithesis of, say, Nikolai Lugansky, whose big,
Read more bold versions of Opp. 33 and 39 – review – are nakedly virtuosic and, after a while, a tad relentless.

CD 1 kicks off with Rachmaninov’s second piano sonata, as ‘revised and reduced’ by the composer in 1931. Immediately I was struck by Lill’s supple delivery, which has plenty of sinew in climaxes. In quieter moments one might be tempted to think this music rather French, but there’s no denying the raw, Russianate cast of the grander ones. That said, the Nimbus recording is sensibly miked, so weight and detail are easily discerned without resorting to an aggressive, upfront presentation. The second movement is poetic and passionate, Lill striking a good balance between Florestan and Eusebius. In the Allegro molto Florestan is untrammelled, and one can’t fail to be awed by the sheer heft of Lill’s pianism, more so as power is never peddled at the expense of overall shape or inner detail.

Also included on this disc are the pieces based on themes by Corelli and Paganini; In the former Lill finds a pleasing equilibrium between baroque clarity and grace on the one hand and impetuous Romanticism on the other. Indeed, even-handedness is the guiding light of this collection, a welcome change from the oft-overheated, attention-seeking pianism one hears these days. As for the Paganini Rhapsody it has plenty of point and sparkle, but some may find the orchestra lacking in warmth and body; one could say the same about the piano, which is inclined to fierceness in the treble. Otherwise this is a perfectly respectable performance, if not as thrilling or as probing as Earl Wild and Jascha Horenstein’s classic account on Chandos. You can also hear Lill in the four piano concertos on another well received Nimbus set.

CD 2 is devoted to the Opp. 33 and 39 Etudes-Tableaux, taut of rhythm and, in the mercurial No. 2 of Op. 33, wonderfully fluid. And while the piano sounds closer than before it’s not overwhelmingly so; still, Rachmaninov’s power chords and climaxes can be a tad intimidating at times. In many ways Lill is at his most beguiling in quieter, more rhapsodic pieces – sample the bell-like figures at the heart of Op. 33 No. 3 – but then he’s simply dazzling in the fiery Op. 33 No. 7. The Op. 39 set are no less impressive, No. 1 as testosterone-engorged as I’ve ever heard it, the A minor Lento (No. 2) both emphatic and eloquent. And just listen to the infectious, Tchaikovskian rhythms of No. 4, the music admirably shaped and projected. All share that winning blend of fluency and thrust, Lill careful not to overdrive the dynamo that animates No. 8 or turn the pounding chords of No. 9 into jack-hammers.

In collections of this kind I’m always wary of a creeping sameness, a tendency to replace insight with bludgeon and bluster; I’m pleased to say there’s none of that here. Certainly not in CD 3, which contains the Opp. 23 and 32 Preludes. For me they represent the composer at his most intimate and intimidating; for instance, Op. 23 No. 2 is a terrifying mill-race, unerringly navigated, No. 4 a deceptive pond beneath which a powerful current still tugs amd teases. And how haughty the rhythms of No. 5, how brightly polished the little E flat minor (No. 9). Of the Op. 32 set, No. 5 is one of the most alluring, Lill finding just the right blend of gentle pictorialism and rhythmic rigour. Again, the piano is close, but it never becomes harsh or overbearing; still, the Preludes are best heard in separate sittings, for they are formidable works formidably played.

CD 4 begins with a nicely nuanced reading of the famous Prelude in C sharp minor, which has just enough of that necessary – and thrilling – bass weight. Dynamically it’s convincingly contoured, a perfect precursor to the slightly later Six Moments musicaux. Even here there’s an alacrity and confidence to the writing that’s mirrored in Lill’s handling of its changing moods and rhythms. At every turn this pianist outlines and illuminates, helped in no small measure by the clear – but very revealing – acoustic at Wyastone Leys. This collection ends with a compelling performance of the first sonata, which is hardly less accomplished than the later one. And to add to his many talents, Lill finds space and nobility in the Allegro moderato, long-breathed loveliness in the Lento and, in the Allegro molto, a mix of fire and ice. A perfect summation of Rachmaninov’s art and Lill’s interpretive range.

It’s never been a better time to buy cheap CDs – especially bargain sets like this one – as record labels saturate the market with material from their back catalogues. In the case of boxes there’s often too much chaff mixed in with the wheat, but I’m pleased to report that, with the possible exception of the rhapsody, that doesn’t apply here.

Good playing, good recording and good value; don’t hesitate.

-- Dan Morgan, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

1.
Sonata for Piano no 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913/1931; Russia 
Date of Recording: 01/19/1994 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 27 Minutes 15 Secs. 
Notes: Composition written: Russia (1913).
Composition revised: Russia (1931). 
2.
Variations on a theme of Corelli, Op. 42 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1931; USA 
Length: 19 Minutes 40 Secs. 
3.
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Conductor:  Tadaaki Otaka
Orchestra/Ensemble:  BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1934; USA 
Date of Recording: 06/08/1995 
Venue:  Brangwyn Hall, Swansea, Wales 
Length: 23 Minutes 44 Secs. 
4.
Etudes-tableaux (9) for Piano, Op. 33 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1911; Russia 
Date of Recording: 01/1995 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 24 Minutes 50 Secs. 
5.
Etudes-tableaux (9) for Piano, Op. 39 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1916-1917; Russia 
Date of Recording: 01/1995 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 39 Minutes 9 Secs. 
6.
Preludes (10) for Piano, Op. 23 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1901-1903; Russia 
Date of Recording: 12/1996 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 34 Minutes 25 Secs. 
7.
Preludes (13) for Piano, Op. 32 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1910; Russia 
Date of Recording: 12/1996 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 41 Minutes 3 Secs. 
8.
Morceaux de fantaisies (5), Op. 3: no 2, Prélude in C sharp minor by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1892; Russia 
Date of Recording: 03/1997 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 4 Minutes 37 Secs. 
9.
Moments musicaux (6), Op. 16 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1896; Russia 
Date of Recording: 03/1997 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 31 Minutes 23 Secs. 
10.
Sonata for Piano no 1 in D minor, Op. 28 by Sergei Rachmaninov
Performer:  John Lill (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1907; Russia 
Date of Recording: 03/1997 
Venue:  Wyastone Leys, Monmouth, England 
Length: 41 Minutes 0 Secs. 

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