Rachmaninoff: Variations on a Theme of Corelli; Piano Sonata No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 2; Études-tableaux, Opp. 33 & 39; Preludes, Opp. 23 & 32; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini

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COMPOSERS: Rachmaninoff
LABELS: Nimbus
WORKS: Variations on a Theme of Corelli; Piano Sonata No. 1; Piano Sonata No. 2; Études-tableaux, Opp. 33 & 39; Preludes, Opp. 23 & 32; Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
PERFORMER: John Lill (piano); BBC National Orchestra of Wales/Tadaaki Otaka
CATALOGUE NO: NI 1736 Reissue (1994-7)
Lill’s Rachmaninoff is refreshingly straightforward or frustratingly ascetic, depending on your point of view. Unusually, it seems to me to stand in a line of descent from Beethoven through Brahms, rather than the more traditionally Russian derivation from Schumann and Liszt. Virtuosity abounds, but there isn’t a trace of Romantic sentimentality or misdirected hedonism. In refraining so consistently from self-indulgent bravura, he focuses the attention entirely on the music, shedding exceptionally illuminating light on Rachmaninoff as thinker and musical craftsman. Among the most striking qualities of Lill at his best is his ability to hold together large-scale structures with an integrity and organic development that give his playing the character of an epic narrative. His commanding and instantly involving accounts of the Second Sonata, the Corelli Variations and the much-exposed Paganini Rhapsody should cause a good many sceptics to reflect ‘I never knew Rachmaninoff was such a good composer’. If Pollini were to take up Rachmaninoff, this is very much how I would expect him to play. That said, there are things, too, which puzzle me. Why, in so many of the Preludes and the Études-tableaux (as in much of the D minor Sonata) are the accompaniments given such prominence, coupled with such a severely metrical cast? The answer certainly isn’t that Lill doesn’t know any better. I only wish I understood his purpose better. For all his virtues, I still miss the suppleness, colouristic variety and soaring lyricism of Ashkenazy, whose Rachmaninoff comes close, for me, to being definitive. Jeremy Siepmann

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