Rachmaninoff The Piano Concertos

Rob Barnett, Classcial Editor, musicweb-international on this re-release : Expectations might be dampened by the opinions of ‘authorities’ on recorded classical music. The great and good in some quarters have had little enthusiastic to say about these recordings. It's time to give these now 15+ year old recordings a new jury.

John Lill has been taken for granted as must often be the fate of those who have been in the public eye since the 1960s. In these five concerted works Lill’s manly and ursine weightiness of delivery complements Rachmaninov ideally. Lill and Otaka favour the pesante approach. The accent is on grandeur and the music blossoms under such craft and philosophy. As we hear in the glitter of the finale of the Second Concerto neither Lill nor Otaka are indissolubly wedded to the wider span; there’s brilliance aplenty but sparingly applied. The same can be heard in the flinty and lop-tangled grandiloquence of the Tchaikovskian First Concerto. My, how good the piano sounds in this recording!



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These recordings may not necessarily displace some of the classic renditions of these works – and everyone will have their own favourites – but they are consistently satisfying and reveal the music to the listener faithfully and without unnecessary ostentation. Lill’s exemplary technique means that he is equal to all the prodigious technical demands of these works and he is on top of the music intellectually as well.

The Third Concerto – my own favourite among the four – is a conspicuous success. Lill has the measure of the enormous first movement and his playing has great sweep and command, as well as the necessary power. He plays the towering longer cadenza (10:53 – 15:40) and he does so majestically.  Lill and Otaka make a very good job of the Second Concerto and are particularly successful in making this oh-so-familiar work seem unhackneyed. The Big Tune in the finale is given its full value but is never overblown, even at the very end of the movement. I enjoyed the slow movement very much. The reading of the ‘Paganini’ Rhapsody is also very rewarding. One may have heard versions with greater surface brilliance but Lill isn’t that kind of artist. He points the livelier variations very acutely while the more reflective passages are sympathetically delivered. I admired his unforced lyricism at the start of Variation 18, which is picked up by Otaka and the orchestra. In this variation the musicians let the music speak for itself – a characteristic of this whole set - and the performance is all the more satisfying for it.

Most complete sets of the Rachmaninov concertos come in two-disc boxes, devoted solely to the works for piano and orchestra. Nimbus do something a bit different, expanding the set to three discs and including two substantial solo works, the Second Sonata and the ‘Corelli’ Variations. The inclusion of these two solo pieces in this present set is no mere caprice: their inclusion – and indeed the places each occupies on the discs – is very apposite. The Second Sonata, which John Lill plays in the original version rather than Rachmaninov’s 1931 revision, shares a disc with the Third concerto. That’s intelligent because, as John Pickard points out in his notes, the sonata and the concerto share a number of formal features and I think a listener who is unaware of those features will, in any case, notice a certain stylistic affinity between the two works. I admired Lill’s account of the sonata very much. He’s fully responsive to its virtuoso stretches – not least the bravura episodes in the finale – but it’s the thoughtful, brooding passages that abound in all three movements that find him at his very best. His reading of the wistful second movement is particularly impressive. The ‘Corelli’ Variations are shrewdly placed before the Paganini Rhapsody on disc three and this opportunity to hear the two works cheek by jowl, as it were, shows the affinity between them; certain variations, such as numbers X and XVIII may remind listeners of the Rhapsody. Corelli’s theme is simple and quite austere – and bears more than a passing resemblance to the Paganini theme – yet it affords Rachmaninov the springboard for twenty compact variations, as well as a short Intermezzo, between Variations XIII and XIV, and a coda. The variations, though mainly quite short, are very inventive and always manage to keep the theme in view. Lill offers a masterly performance and he’s very successful in characterising and contrasting the individual variations – for example the mysterious Variation VIII, following hot on the heels of the extrovert Variation VII. This ability to bend with the winds of Rachmaninov’s inspiration means that on the one hand we can enjoy his limpid tone in Variation XV and then relish the strength with which he delivers the powerful Variations XIX and XX before the brief, calm coda.

This is a very enjoyable, rewarding set. Collectors who already have one or more recordings of these works in their collections will find much to savour and enjoy in Lill’s pianism...anyone wanting to acquire recordings of these pieces for the first time will find John Lill – and Tadaaki Otaka, for that matter – a reliable and rewarding guide. John Quinn, musicweb-international.com

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