The Knowledge, 28th April 2007 ***
Recorded in 2000 in Hong Kong but not released until now, Lill’s playing of four Haydn sonatas is elegant and expressive but lacks the fresh excitement of a new discovery. He plays the scales in No 62 in E flat as if carefully unrolling an expensive cloth, and the fretful, timid opening of No 49 in C sharp minor with gentlemanly, colonial reserve. But the wistful expression he gives to No 32 in G minor robs it of its natural gaiety and lightness, while the laborious wallowing of No 59 in E flat misses the alert early-bird staccato of other, younger interpretations.
International Record Review, June 2007
The seven-year wait for this recording’s release is due to the label that it was originally destined for becoming defunct (as with Signum’s previous issue of John Lill playing Brahms & Schumann). The wait has been worth it. Lill’s crisp and rugged approach to Haydn contrasts with modulation and dynamic insouciance – there is much to charm and remind you of Haydn’s influence on Beethoven (although some would argue that early Beethoven owes more to Clementi).
Concentrating on line, length and argument, Lill – a very distinguished interpreter of Beethoven, of course – gives us Haydn without frills, vividly contrasted, honest, gently tapering and resoloute. There’s lightness of touch, too, and a dry wit, such as in the Scherzando second movement of the C sharp minor Sonata (No. 49 in Christa Landon’s catalogue and No. 36 in Hoboken’s – Signum uses both numberings), which acts as a cheery foil to the opening movement. In that initial Moderato Lill’s breadth of conception seems ideally judged and further enhanced by the observation of both of the movement’s repeats. His tempo for the closing Minuet and Trio is surprisingly measured; it’s not unconvincing and takes on a valedictory character. John McCabe has a different view (3’20” to Lill’s five minutes – with the same repeat scheme) that amounts, obviously, to a much quicker tempo and also to a totally distinct character, upbeat and optimistic, but he lacks Lill’s sparkle in the Scherzando.
Of the two-movement G minor Sonata No. 32, the first one, Moderato, is stark and consoling, and a model of clarity as well as being recorded likewise. Lill’s deliberate handling of the concluding Allegretto again slightly raises doubts (somewhat confirmed by McCabe), but it’s the latter pianist who takes an extraordinarily massive view of the first movement, nearly four minutes longer than Lill (repeats conincide), who is certainly in no rush and actually seems just about right. (There is no ‘one’ English way on playing Haydn.)
Of the two Sonatas in E flat, the one numbered 59 by Landon and 49 by Hoboken is given a direct course by Lill, who makes much of the repeated bass notes of the first movement and which take on a Beethovenian questing; Lill’s observance of the second-half repeat isn’t so much ‘reach the end and return to the development’ as an appreciation of how Haydn’s music is constantly evolving. Alfred Brendel is more impish in the opening movemnt at a jauntier tempo (90 seconds quicker), but his broader-based observations demand some tempo fluctuation that Lill avoids; however, in return, Brendel’s livelier and colourful response has a more immediate impact. Lill can seem a little staid, yet he brings his own, very cogent reasoning for his view. In short, both pianists persuade and comparisons are odious.
Lill has been closelt recorded in quite a dry acoustic; he seems to use a minimum of pedal; the result is a crystal-clear reproduction of the piano and of the music. In comparison, both Brendel’s and McCabe’s instruments sound a little too fulsome and distant (McCabe’s set is entirely of analogue recordings and two of Brendel’s, including this E flat Sonata, were made before the days of digital taping).
Of the other e flat work (No. 62, Hob. XVI/52) – Landon’s catalogue includes complete sonatas that Hoboken ignored, hence the higher numbers for some sonatas – Lill gives a magnificent performance, leaving in no doubt Haydn’s expansion of means, and for which Lill finds more sinew from his piano. How pensive is the opening of the first movement’s development, especially so given the scintillation with which Lill expounds the exposition (twice, of course). The Adagio is spaciously conceived and richly expressed (with presages of ‘late’ Beethoven) and the finale has something of ‘fire and brimstone’ about it. Is it too fast, even for Presto? Well, Lill can play it at this speed without compromising the articulation and that is much of the battle won, but Marc-André Hamelin (whose recording quality seems a bit synthetic after the vividly immediate presentation of Lill) does point up the fact that Lill rather forces the pace. (Hamelin’s two CDs offer an often-dazzling selection of Haydn’s genius.)
Ultimately, I wouldn’t want to be without Brendel, Hamelin or McCabe (or Leif Ove Andresnes or Alain Planés…) and Lill joins this select group. Tony Harrison is credited as editor; it must be minimal, for these recording sound like ‘real’ performances – and that’s very much Lill’s style.
The Gramophone, July 2007
Once shamefully neglected, Haydn’s piano sonatas are enjoying a much-needed renaissance on record…
For the richly experienced John Lill, Haydn’s music is demonstatably of the highest quality, his quirkiness never toppling into facetiousness and often suggesting darker undercurrents and emotional ambivalence. Most sterling of British pianists, he leaves high-flying virtuosity to others and his impeccable technique and musicianship make a superb case for a choice of works that, significantly, stresses the more speculative side of Haydn’s nature. True, his way with No 49 in E flat could sound stolid to those used to a more alert, bright-eyed approach, yet it could also be thought nobly self-effacing and distinctive. And as if to balance things out Lill concludes with the great and final E flat Sonata, adding warmth, affection and brilliance (in his hands the finale is an effervescent tour de force).