At the Orpheum Theatre on February 18. Continues on February 20
The British veteran pianist John Lill has reportedly claimed to have communed with dead composers and to have had out-of-body experiences during recitals. But there was nothing outrageous about his Saturday-night performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.
Lill, hailed as one of the foremost interpreters of Ludwig van Beethoven, delivered the composer’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G Major, Op. 58 with an elegance free of flamboyance. With its striking opening solo piano chords—which Lill delivered with a gentle, refined lyricism—the concerto quietly but firmly establishes the piano as the central figure in a dialogue with the orchestra, and the VSO never overreached in this regard.
Lill’s virtuosity is beyond question—even after a traumatic robbery 12 years ago, in which both of his hands were slashed—but the most magical moments he created were not when he was crisply tackling bubbling phrases at lightning speed, but during the more introspective parts, particularly in the second, “Andante con moto” movement. In such passages he was able to convey a great authenticity of feeling, without ever spilling over into sentimentalism.
The concluding “Rondo: Vivace” movement was presented as a sprightly and triumphant show of agility, but again Lill kept any impulse to show off in check, and let the purity of Beethoven’s music emerge. For his stately performance, he received rousing applause from the audience, who brought him back to the stage four times but could not coax out an encore.
Opening the program was Jyotir, by Winnipeg composer Glenn Buhr. Composed in 1989, the work is described by Buhr in the program notes as a “brief study in virtuosic orchestral writing…strongly influenced by the music of India”. A whirling flight of fancy, the piece is exciting for its unrelenting pulse, aided by a full drum kit and jazzy rhythms that felt more Leonard Bernstein than Syama Shastry. Enjoyable, though not particularly Earth-shattering, it was a fun ear-opener for starting the evening.
The concluding work on the program, in contrast, was Edward Elgar’s sweeping and emotional Symphony No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 63. With its turbulent first movement and grief-laden second movement, the work—though richly and expressively performed—was a heavy choice with which to end the concert. After the textural richness of the Beethoven, something a little lighter and less overwrought would have made for an easier second half. This, of course, is a quibble with what was, on the whole, a moving evening of true musicianship.