Over a musical career spanning 60 years, British pianist John Lill has continued to deepen his musical understanding to that profound level which only the very best achieve, along with the ability to enlighten and thrill an audience.
Thursday night at Benaroya Hall, all of this was in evidence as Lill played a demanding program with seemingly inexhaustible energy. He began with Mozart’s Sonata No. 12 in F Major, K. 332.
In 1783, when the sonata was written, the piano was in its infancy, a lightweight oblong instrument (the so-called ‘square’ piano) easy for two to carry around, with a fast sound decay and featherlight touch. As such Mozart could write music to be played very fast — today, that’s much more difficult to do well on a grand piano, a behemoth with much heavier touch and long decay.
This sonata is full of articulated runs in first and last movements which seem impossibly speedy, particularly in the last movement, except that Lill played them with apparent relaxed ease.
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He went on to Schumann’s “Carnival de Vienne,” composed over 50 years later, during which period the piano had grown in size, weight and power. Each of the five movements, the middle three very short, the outer two longer and with fast rolling runs, has distinct character that Lill brought into clear relief.
He ended the first half with Prokofiev’s brief, brilliant Toccata, Op. 11 from 1912, which is centered on one note, with excursions. This is furious and rumbling like an express train coming down the track with inexorable, onward push.
So far this program was one that could well have been chosen by a youngster keen to show off his skill, all great works of music and technically difficult to play well. But in Lill’s playing there was a difference. Yes, the speed of runs was impressive, but in Mozart they were light and articulated, in Schumann they rolled, in Prokofiev they were urgent, impulsive. At all times they were clean, clear, and sensitively phrased. Never, never did Lill pound the piano, nor did he ever make the music sound hurried, except where it was musically required. His hands and arms seemed relaxed, just rippling over the keys, his body stayed quiet, and the music poured out.
Because of the onslaught of fast music, the slower movements were a treasured contrast to hear with the exquisite shaping Lill gave them: The Adagio movement of the Mozart, the soft, soulful Romanze in the Schumann, the gentler moments in the Prokofiev.
The Three Intermezzos, Op. 117, of Brahms that followed intermission showed even more Lill’s ability to differentiate between qualities in what, on the face of it, could be similar pieces. He played the first of these as a reassuring lullaby, soothing but with backbone; the second flowed dreamily like the varying waves of a calm sea, while the third felt a little fearful, anxious, softly asking a query.
Lill ended this blockbuster program with Beethoven’s Sonata in F Minor, the “Appassionata,” played with all the panache, the insight, the grace and the excitement the work demands. In his interpretation, calm moments alternated with segments of pantherish power or a passionate deluge of notes.
The audience responded as they had all evening with delirious shouts of applause and Lill responded in turn with the slow movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata as encore.