Q&A

Q&A | John Lill celebrates his 70th birthday

In his 70th birthday year the top pianist talks to Sarah Lambie about Beethoven, touring, concert halls and winning the Tchaikovky competition. But as he says, it's a sit down job.

Having given his first piano recital at the age of nine, John Lill performed Rachmaninov's third piano concerto under Sir Adrian Boult at the age of 18, and made his London debut playing Beethoven's Emperor concerto at the Royal Festival Hall. In 1970 he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and overall, in a career spanning six decades, he has performed in more than fifty countries. From late 2013 to February 2014, in celebration of his 70th birthday, Lill has been undertaking a Beethoven sonata cycle in London and Manchester. Remaining recitals are on 10 and 24 February at Cadogan Hall, London, and until May at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Lill’s 70th birthday concert takes place at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 17 March, at which he will perform the third Rachmaninov concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard (also performed on 16 March, Royal & Derngate, Northampton and 18 March, The Hexagon, Reading).  Photo: Sophie Baker

Having given his first piano recital at the age of nine, John Lill performed Rachmaninov’s third piano concerto under Sir Adrian Boult at the age of 18, and made his London debut playing Beethoven’s Emperor concerto at the Royal Festival Hall. In 1970 he won the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and overall, in a career spanning six decades, he has performed in more than fifty countries. From late 2013 to February 2014, in celebration of his 70th birthday, Lill has been undertaking a Beethoven sonata cycle in London and Manchester. Remaining recitals are on 10 and 24 February at Cadogan Hall, London, and until May at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester. Lill’s 70th birthday concert takes place at the Royal Festival Hall, London, on 17 March, at which he will perform the third Rachmaninov concerto with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Thomas Dausgaard (also performed on 16 March, Royal & Derngate, Northampton and 18 March, The Hexagon, Reading).
Photo: Sophie Baker

What has been the highlight of your 70th birthday Beethoven sonata cycle?

Each of the sonatas is so great, I couldn’t say there’s a dud one. All concerts have their own challenges so it’s about getting the next concert as accurate as I can, or approaching perfection ‒ if that’s possible. Certainly I believe interpretation should be subconscious, inevitable. Conductors ask me ‘What do you do in that section?’ and I reply ‘I don’t do anything’.

What is it about Beethoven’s music that particularly speaks to you?

The sincerity, the directness, and the architectural strength. There is colossal imagination and range of emotion, particularly in his latest works: there it transcends reality altogether and reaches the metaphysical and spiritual. When I was young, Beethoven provided great support in difficult times: when there was no money after the Second World War and everything was unstable, his music was a sturdy floor you could walk on. I don’t like things artificial and affected, and Beethoven is totally direct: perhaps the perfect inspirational creative force.

Have you anything coming up this year to which you’re especially looking forward?

Tours of America, Japan, I went to China for the first time last year and played in Beijing to a packed hall: it was lovely ‒ large, new, and somehow word has got around and they’ve invited me back. Music is literally an international language. Instead of reading all about gloom and despondency in the media, in my work I find how extraordinary it is that there are so many marvellous, wonderful people all over the world.

Have you a favourite concert hall to play in?

It varies slightly according to mood. I have a list of favourite halls and everything depends on the occasion. I think the Bridgewater Hall in Manchester is the finest in England, but other halls are good too: the Birmingham Symphony Hall is marvellous, and Cardiff’s St David’s Hall. I don’t think London does possess a good symphony hall, but what is lovely are the surprises: I played recently at the new Saffron Hall in Saffron Walden. It was beautifully designed with a fabulous new piano, fabulous acoustic, and all in this relatively remote area.

And a career highlight, to date?

Winning the Tchaikovsky prize has to be the greatest highlight: it was unique, and most unexpected by me ‒ it was 1970 and Lenin’s centenary year so I expected the winner to be Soviet ‒ but there were cars full of flowers, and gifts. I was overwhelmed by the sheer goodness of people. I have also twice performed all Beethoven’s concertos in one evening. You have to eat plenty of chocolate during it ‒ I did One, Two, interval; Three, Four, another interval; and then the Emperor. It takes 5 hours: it sounds exhausting, but then it’s a sit-down job, as I say to all my friends.

Are there any recordings in the pipeline?

I always prefer concerts to recordings because recordings are two-dimensional rather than three-dimensional. In a concert you have the creator, the composer; the re-creator, the performer; and the receiver, the public. By contrast, recordings are slightly artificial. However, I’m thinking of recording all the Scriabin studies ‒ they would come to about a CD’s-worth of music, so that’s one option. But there is so much I want to do as a pianist: I’m hampered really by the huge repertoire I can choose from.

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