Music / The gentle giant of the keyboard: Adrian Jack on John Lill's 50th birthday recital and a sample of Spanish improvisation

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The Independent Culture
John Lill has been a household name ever since he won the Tchaikovsky Competition in 1970. His choice of repertoire may be conservative, yet he never plays to the gallery, and his 50th birthday recital at the Festival Hall on Sunday was a dignified affair. It also found him on very good form. He began with Mozart's last piano sonata, in D, K 576, a brilliant showpiece with rollicking fanfares in the first movement, subtly coloured harmonies in the slow middle movement and powerfully driven counterpoint in the finale. Lill pitched all these elements adroitly, and if the first movement was a shade fast for every detail to be clear, it was at least disciplined, never hectic.

A degree of turmoil is perhaps not out of place in the first movement of Beethoven's Waldstein Sonata, but its development brought a perceptible hurrying, as if the very framework of the music were slipping, which introduced an effect of uncertainty when most of Lill's playing was so crisp and rhythmic. But after casting in the most austere terms the Introduzione that stands in for a slow movement, Lill set the final Rondo afloat as gently and calmly as you please, allowing plenty of contrast with the joyous Prestissimo of the coda.

After this impeccably Classical first half, Lill reserved the second for extremes of Romantic poetry and rhetoric in Schumann's Scenes from Childhood and Rachmaninov's Sonata No 2. He didn't chew over Schumann's miniatures, yet they were tenderly felt - robust, too, when it came to the pompous left-hand octaves in 'An important event'. The penultimate piece, 'Child falling asleep', was really lovely, muted as if by slumber, and the epilogue sang out nobly.

As befits a heavyweight, Lill played the longer, original version of Rachmaninov's Sonata, and this, quite rightly, was the real triumph of the evening. No music is more glamorous, but it loses its glamour if the pianist plays for short-term sensation and squeezes it to the last gasp. This performance was both as accurate and as powerful as you could wish, but wisely paced without sounding calculated. Not until the final resplendent tune did Lill unbutton his stays, and by then he had earned the right. Much to his credit, he gave no encores.

At the Wigmore Hall on Monday night Agusti Fernandez gave an hour- long performance, as part of the Spanish Arts Festival, which began with atmospheric evocations inside the piano and built up to a healthy release of rage on the keyboard. Some crunchy flamenco chords had me hoping he would take us somewhere instead of worrying at one patch until it was bare. But anyone who heard this kind of stuck-in-a-rut improvisation 20-odd years ago would say it was bare from the beginning.

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