Brahms/Schumann: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by GF Handel, Op. 24; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117

COMPOSERS: Brahms/Schumann
LABELS: Signum
ALBUM TITLE: Brahms/Schumann
WORKS: Variations and Fugue on a Theme by GF Handel, Op. 24; 3 Intermezzi, Op. 117
PERFORMER: John Lill (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: SIGCD 075
This Signum recording was made in 2000, and John Lill has recorded Schumann’s C major Fantasy again since then (in 2003 for Classics for Pleasure – a version which is a marked improvement over this one). Lill obviously has great affection for this music, but unfortunately this is only intermittently evident in the Signum recording. Part of the problem is his failure to sustain Schumann’s long arching phrases, especially in the outer movements. Try the magical ‘Im Legendenton’ section of the first movement, where the music becomes disjointed and fragmented. Lill makes this music sound notey, with a compressed dynamic range that soon becomes relentless. The fortissimo climax of the second-movement March sounds hard and forced, rather than resounding with an organ-like regal splendour. And compare Sergio Fiorentino’s aristocratic and ethereal expansiveness in the third movement, where Lill’s playing by comparison remains stubbornly earthbound.

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The Brahms fares slightly better, with a richer and more malleable sound. The Op.117 Intermezzi are played with an engaging warmth, although without much expressive subtlety. The Handel Variations, too, elicit a more imaginative response and a sense of intellectual clarity, but once more the tone is predominantly strident and aggressive, and even in the more reflective variations Lill rarely retreats to a genuine pianissimo. Listen to Solomon’s outstanding recording from 1942 – so much more vividly characterized and with a far greater expressive scope, despite the dated sound – and the limitations of Lill’s playing are emphasised.

Signum’s recording is well balanced, but the uncomfortably close perspective exacerbates the problems of brittle tone and restricted dynamics.

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Tim Parry