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Brahms and Schumann


Schumann Fantasie Op 17

Brahms Handel Variations Op 24; Intermezzi Op 117


John Lill (piano)

SignumClassics SIGCD075


The Brahms Handel Variations have undoubtedly received less attention than Bach's Goldbergs or Beethoven's Diabellis; one cannot think of classic accounts of them as one does of Gould, Perahia (Bach) or Brendel and Kovacevich (Beethoven). They suffer from the similar danger of being indigestible if badly interpreted; at the same time, the qualities we associate with great Brahms playing – an ability to nuance and lighten piano writing of great severity and compression – do not necessarily sit well with the young-Brahms hectoring and heroism of these variations.


This reading by John Lill, however, is striking in its rightness, makes light of the technical difficulties and is easily the most impressive performance I have heard from him. It has a sureness of touch, an expert sense of transition from one variation to the next (Brahms writes much of the piece as sequences of related variations) and a certainty which convinces the listener above occasional infelicities in the composer's invention.


Above all, one is always sure that Lill carries the work's complex structure in his head; he manages to make the extremely stodgy concluding fugue sound neither too long nor too boring. That assertiveness gives the interpretation a classic status above, for example, the similarly well thought-out Barry Douglas live performance recently at LSO St Lukes.


This is a piece I personally love, more, I think, than even most Brahms aficionados do; I would now send a first-time listener to this version to convince them.


In Schumann's Fantasy, the competition is far stiffer (and musicological opinion unfailingly favourable of the work). Here, Lill's strength of character rightly plays the opposite role, giving form and discipline to what remains a sprawling work beset by Schumann's passionate outbursts, rather than elucidating Brahms' congested imagination. The interpretation is wholly successful, notably in the well-crafted first movement. It is, however, less obviously ‘special' and though the spacious playing in the last movement will not disappoint, fans of the Pollini, Argerich, Geza Anda, Richter or Annie Fischer versions are unlikely to change allegiance.


The ‘filler' of Brahms' Op 117 intermezzi is the least impressive thing on the disc; here, Lill's steadiness can seem repetitive, and I far prefer, in the recent competition, Marc-Andre Hamelin's gentle, lyrical versions (but available in turn only as the filler in a 2 CD set of the piano quartets). From the past, Kempff and Backhaus are exemplary.


Lill is known to be unhappy with his much earlier recordings of Beethoven sonatas (originally on ASV's budget label); their plainness of both playing and recording not reflecting the depth of his later interpretations. Both for him and for the listener, these are far more satisfactory in their gravitas and authority, and in recording and other production values of the highest quality. The Handel Variations are an indispensable account.


Ying Chang