I associate John Lill with two composers in particular: Beethoven and Prokofiev. Both were included in his 60th-birthday recital on Sunday. But the least expected item was Schumann's neglected cycle of five pieces, Faschingsschwank aus Wien (Carnival Jest from Vienna), which Lill recently added to his repertoire. Lill has avowed a special fondness for Schumann, and in his last Festival Hall recital, 18 months ago, he included the "Humoreske".
Schumann wrote Faschingsschwank in the same period, starting it on a trip to Vienna, and quoting the "Marseillaise", which was then forbidden in the city. Bizarrely, it occurs in the most Germanic, clod-hopping episode of the extended first movement. There is something of high jinks in this and the third-movement "Scherzino", and perhaps, as one Schumann specialist suggests, the composer was making a bid for a wider audience.
The spirit of high jinks was something Lill didn't really capture; I suspect it's foreign to his nature. The rhythms of those two movements must be springy and dancelike, but he had them regimented and propelled. The furious finale, a sonata-form movement in toccata style, was more convincing, suggesting Lill should add Schumann's sonatas to his repertoire.
The Schumann followed Mozart's F major Sonata, K332, played in a chaste, very controlled manner that suggested still waters running deep. All Mozart's dynamic contrasts were there, but not made the occasion for effusive expression. It wasn't until the finale that Lill's iron grip seemed to close on the music.
Which was fine when it came to Prokofiev's Toccata, the final piece before the interval. Here, Lill's steely fingers, laser-like accuracy and relentless beat did full justice to this classic of motor-driven modernity.
The recital's second part took on a mellow mood with Brahms's three Intermezzi, Op 117. Although these are sometimes thoughtlessly described as miniatures, they stretch their deliberately restricted ideas as far as they will go; by taking a distinctly severe view and adopting firmly flowing tempi, Lill made a strong case for them as musical architecture.
And so to Beethoven's "Appassionata" Sonata, a work that rarely seems reborn because it is so familiar. Well, this was one of those rare exceptions. The first movement was dark, brooding and stern: absolutely gripping. The middle movement was forthright, though Lill relaxed the seams of the last variation. His intensity of purpose in the finale made a small memory lapse, from which he swiftly recovered, seem like an affecting sign that he was only human. The quality of his concentration, cumulatively, was massively impressive.
Pressed for encores, Lill suggested "something quiet", and embarked on one of Chopin's most epic Nocturnes, in C minor, Op 48, which he built up, inexorably, as the noble and tragic poem that it is.