The word ‘genius’ does not adequately describe Beethoven’s stature as a composer

John LillTue 1st October 2013

Performing the composer’s complete piano sonatas is a great privilege and responsibility

To be invited to play the complete Beethoven Sonatas is at once a great honour and a great challenge. He is surely one of the few major composers, whose music can fill an entire programme – or on this occasion, eight of them!

There are several reasons behind this extraordinary ability. The composer's limitless imagination, strength of structure and astonishing range of mood from the most searching and profound to the most hysterically comical are obvious characteristics. Even a random glimpse at any of his massive output shows that he was never in the same mood twice and the freshness, directness of utterance, sincerity and freedom from affectation or artificiality are powerful pointers to his unique, commanding authority.

In fact, even the word 'genius' seems an inadequate description of his stature for, unlike many great artists who point to and describe the human condition so admirably, to me Beethoven's greatest works are so spiritually exalted that they actually transcend emotion. They reveal other dimensions seldom realised and represent a straight line to destiny and reality. The incredible powers flowing through the composer's mind were not compromised or limited by his earthbound environment. In my view, he is a perfect example of an intermediary receiving vast inspiration from powers outside himself. There can be no other explanation, especially when considering his last great works, written when profoundly deaf. 

Another great example of his strength can be seen in the way he reacted to this increasing deafness. Instead of resignation, he surmounted the tragedy to become one of the greatest visionaries of all time. It was not so much whether he received hardship, but the way he reacted to it that made such a premature and permanent development of his mind. This is surely a lesson for all.

The responsibility of those performing Beethoven's music is huge, as they must become channels for the projection of the music with minimum distortion or conscious 'interpretation' - a word I've increasingly disliked as it infers polluting the music with wilful, if skilful, tinkering. That said, in the same way that one cannot eat a recipe, a score has to be 'brought to life' and portrayed by the performer. This will inevitably require much from the imagination and personality of the player, but the essential point is that it must sound unmannered, fresh and direct. Freedom of expression must always be in existence in the same way that seasoning can enhance a meal but the degree of it should be barely discernible. If someone tells me what a fine pianist I am, that's kind of them, yet if they say how much they enjoyed the music, that means infinitely more. The less I am 'in the way' of a score the better. I feel that my responsibility is to rekindle the original inspiration which gripped the composer at the time of the work's conception and to reveal it as such. The music can then travel naturally to the listener.

The single most important aspect is strength of architecture and this is very dependent upon tempo. The correct speed at the time (for it will always be slightly different on other occasions, due to mood and conditions) is the one which needs minimum variation and from which maximum experience can be projected in any given time. It is essential that the composers' tempo requests are understood and digested - there is no other way that the mood can be requested. A performance must always sound fresh and free from routine. In the case of works I play often, I give them a quick ‘medical check up’ then work on other repertoire to preserve spontaneity.

A successful performance surely requires three participants; the creator (composer), the re-creator (performer) and the receiver (audience). One of the reasons why I'm not so keen on studio recording is that the crucial last component is (normally) missing. The presence of a public adds a vital dimension to the recreation of music.

Incidentally, when playing the complete sonatas of Beethoven in a series, I do not do so in order of composition. That may irritate purists and understandably so. I elect to make each concert an overview of the composer's development so that each recital starts with an earlier sonata followed by later ones. In other words, each concert is chronological within itself.

Music, because of its intangibility, is an immensely powerful medium, which always returns far more to us than we can possibly give to it. What it gives us is permanent strength, enlightenment and development of mind. What a blessed art form!

John Lill performs the complete Beethoven piano sonatas at Cadogan Hall from October 7, 2013 to February 24, 2014, and at Bridgewater Hall throughout the 2013/14 season. Tickets available from cadoganhall.com / 020 7730 4500 and bridgewater-hall.co.uk / 0844 907 9000

John Lill's picture

John Lill

John Lill is often described as the leading British pianist of his generation. His concert career, spanning over 50 years, has taken him to over 50 countries, both as a recitalist and as a soloist with the world’s greatest orchestras. Lill is acclaimed in particular as a leading interpreter of Beethoven. He was awarded a CBE for his services to music in the 2005 New Year’s Honours List. (photo: Sophie Baker)

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