Notes and Editorial Reviews
Consistently satisfying performances that reveal Rachmaninov’s music to the listener faithfully and without unnecessary ostentation.
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 and Brahms, 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 say:
“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 as well.
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 for it.
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.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
Rhapsody on a theme of Paganini, Op. 43 by Sergei Rachmaninov
John Lill (Piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Written: 1934; USA
Concerto for Piano no 4 in G minor, Op. 40 by Sergei Rachmaninov
John Lill (Piano)
BBC National Orchestra of Wales
Written: 1926/1941; USA
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