Before British pianist John Lill was 20, the renowned pedagogue and author Sidney Harrison (“The Young Person’s Guide to Playing the Piano”) said Lill “simply devours Beethoven.”
He still does. Lill, in great demand right now as an honoree in international celebrations of his 70th birthday last month, is making a stop at Benaroya Hall on Wednesday, April 30. He’ll be performing Beethoven’s Sonata in F minor (“Appassionata”) as part of a recital that also includes Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 12 in F major, Schumann’s “Carnival de Vienne,” Prokofiev’s Toccata and Brahms’ Three Intermezzos.
“There’s a stylistic contrast in the program, so people can feel adequately refreshed,” Lill says by phone from his home in London.
Lill’s Seattle performance is situated between two phases of an ambitious project to perform all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas at the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester, England. The series began last September, and concludes in May and June.
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“[Hearing all 32] enables you to get beneath the surface of this supreme composer,” Lill says in an online promotion of the series.
“Each one is an overview of [Beethoven’s] development, and together they give you a feeling of really having traveled from one place to the next.”
Playing the complete Beethoven piano sonata cycle is a feat Lill has performed before. Reprising it is only one of many ambitious projects on his schedule, underscoring his reputation as a septuagenarian master.
“It’s been a very busy season, and there have been lots of 70th birthday concerts,” he says. “I look forward to performing more than ever. I enjoy the challenge of trying to get the music right, though there’s never a doubt that if you play professionally, you know you will never get it right in this life. I feel that when someone begins to feel pleased with himself, that’s a sign of decline.
“I find that things jump off pages in the scores even more than 10 years ago. If you’re playing in public, you must be convinced by what you’re doing. If you’re not convinced, your public can’t be. So I believe it’s important to digest a score, but when it comes to the concert, you must feel free to rely on your interpretation.
“You must honor your composer, but I feel that in performance, the less I interpret with a capital ‘I,’ the better. I think it’s important to identify the original inspiration of the composer and translate that with minimum interference.”
Born in London, Lill began playing a neighbor’s piano at age 8.
His impoverished parents managed to get hold of a used, upright piano, and Lill went on to study at the Royal College of Music. He gave his first recital at age 9, and in 1970 won the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow.
Lill has long spoken of experiencing out-of-body transcendence when performing.
“That has been more the case as the years have gone on,” he says.
“ ‘Inspired’ and ‘in spirit’ are very similar. I feel there’s an exultation of consciousness. I believe that spiritual essence and assistance are available to all people.”