An English Evening, John Lill

John Lill, piano, and Bramwell Tovey, Conductor

Works by Buhr, Beethoven and Elgar; Orpheum, February 18, 2012 

John Lill

John Lill

When long-celebrated British pianist, John Lill, walked on stage with a noble refinement and seriousness of purpose that only the English can have, I was immediately taken back to the concerts at Royal Festival Hall 40 years ago, where an appreciative, tweed-bearing London audience exuded almost identical characteristics.  Even conductor Bramwell Tovey was seemingly aware that a ’nobleman’ had arrived, trading his usual enthusiastic vigour for something much more subdued and obedient.  John Lill was of course one of the original winners of the Tchaikovsky Competition, and recorded his first complete set of Beethoven piano concertos as early as 1972.  He has been awarded 8 honourary doctorates from UK universities. 

The Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4 played here was as good a concerto performance as we have had.  Always noted for a direct, strong style, the years have added a wonderful elegance and thoughtfulness to John Lill’s playing.  His virtuosity may not be as assured but his awareness of the complexities of this music is likely greater.  Lill still weaves a strong, convincing line through the outer movements but it was his distilled concentration in the slow movement that produced the truly sublime experience.  The other input was the excellent collaboration with the conductor, who made a special effort to put detail in the right place, to avoid blocking the soloist by being too loud, and to bring out the lyrical feel of the work. 

What could be a more exciting way to follow this than by probably the greatest English symphony, Sir Edward Elgar’s Second Symphony (1911)?  When composed, conductor Hans Richter declared it to be ‘the greatest symphony ever written’.  And it has proven to be both a great work and a very difficult one to conduct too, combining exuberance, nobility, melancholy and tenderness all in close proximity, and demanding the most subtle rhythmic flexibility.  Sir Adrian Boult, who championed the work from the beginning, noted that for all its hills and valleys, the secret in conducting this symphony is to ‘establish where its true climaxes are’. 

Bramwell Tovey too must have Elgar’s music in his bones, and one immediately felt this in the more thrusting, energetic passages of the opening movement.  But the conductor seemingly could not integrate these very well with the more serene, intimate passages.  It is almost like he felt that, if he relaxed into the latter, then he would let go of the work’s momentum.  Thus, so many quiet passages were neither savoured nor shaped enough to produce their full emotional impact.  In the striking moments that allude to the ‘mystery’ of Elgar’s dramatic oratorios, and elsewhere, the upper strings simply lacked the expressive radiance needed to make their effect.  At other places, the horns and trombones could have been much more decisive. 

The second movement is a masterpiece.  It is not marked ‘nobilmente’ -- as is the opening of the First Symphony -- but similarly requires a quiet, measured tread like a solemn royal (funeral) procession, building with great tenderness to an overwhelming climax.  One cannot doubt the conductor’s commitment but here he was just a little too eager, setting a tempo fractionally too fast, and allowing the initial trumpet theme to be too loud.  As things progressed, climaxes were upon us too quickly, removing some of the weight of the ‘true’ climax later on.  While the robust rhythms of the following scherzo were powerfully captured, the final movement was again less involving, moving on conscientiously but not really building to the crowning emotional resolution that it might. 

Even if the audience was not very responsive at the end, this was an enterprising concert.  While the Elgar interpretation is still very much a ‘work in progress’, it seems that Maestro Tovey and the VSO will not develop the long line, concentration and endurance needed to give great performances of the greatest symphonies unless they keep on challenging themselves this way. 

© Geoffrey Newman 2012