When looking at one of Turner’s paintings, a lady asked the painter, ‘Why do you paint all those colours in the sky; when I look at the sky, I don’t see those colours’. ‘No Madam’, Turner replied, ‘but don’t you wish you could?’.

The spiritual

For the great pianist John Lill, Turner’s sense of going beyond what you can physically see and feel is highly pertinent to Beethoven’s music. Lill is a great believer in the spirituality of music and performance, and particularly of Beethoven. ‘At its greatest, his music transcends emotion. It becomes a pure spiritual experience which awaits us all.’

‘I’ve had complete and total knowledge of the spiritual. I have visions in my concerts – incredible realisations of support giving unlimited strength. This is available to all people but with the world we’re living in which is instant and physical, then there’s little access to it. Of course I’m talking about a very small level compared to some of these geniuses.’

How on earth could Beethoven have written his music when he was already profoundly deaf Lill asked. Beethoven could have opted out, but instead he became a supreme composer. His struggle is written into his works, and the finale of op. 111, the last of his piano sonatas, is where struggle ends up if handled correctly. It is a truly spiritual exultation of profundity.

And it is not just the music which struggles, Beethoven makes his performers struggle too Lill said. When a violinist complained to Beethoven that his violin concerto was impossible to play, Beethoven retorted, ‘When God tells me what to write, do you think I care about your puny fingers?’

Performing Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas

Talking about the difference between his playing now compared to earlier in his life, Lill commented that he now feels more relaxed and mellow, and has never enjoyed playing the piano and working as much as now. ‘I’m finding that new things are being revealed daily, it’s incredibly exciting.’ He also finds himself studying the score away from the piano more and more as he has got older; ‘I used to rely on just talent alone but there comes a time when you want to go beyond that’. Most importantly, you have to be your own critic, you cannot play music that you are not convinced by.

To celebrate his 70th birthday, Lill has been performing the complete Beethoven sonata cycle at Cadogan Hall and Bridgewater Hall. He has performed the complete sonatas internationally throughout his career, and spoke of how each cycle feels different to him. Even in his concert in January 2014, Lill’s incredible performance of the Hammerklavier was four minutes shorter than his recorded version.

There is a great sense of responsibility to your public, especially with performing an entire cycle. ‘Every artist has their own public, and I do like the John Lill public, it makes me feel very lucky. I love the challenge and it keeps me going – I have absolutely no intention of retiring! I am strong believer that music gives you energy and good health, not that I am biased!’

Early, middle and late Beethoven

Describing Beethoven’s ‘Early’, ‘Middle’ and ‘Late’ style from a pianists’ perspective, Lill said that, whilst he does not like labels, even in Beethoven’s early period he was bending the rules rather than breaking them, though he was still much closer to Haydn and Mozart. In the middle period he was far more of an individual. ‘He bent the rules even more but he still kept within them and I think the greatest geniuses are like that. Once you start breaking rules, you’re up against a sticky wicket.’

The later period is the most crucial. When Schubert heard the late quartet of op. 131 he said ‘What else is there left to write?’. And this is what you truly feel of this period. You can’t talk about it in words, the way you can’t describe in words the colour blue. ‘The geniuses before and after him can paint the colours of a mountain and we have no idea of what lies over the other side. With Beethoven at his greatest in his final period, he could glimpse that other side, and that applies to very few other individuals.’

On performance, interpretation, and cooking…

‘The less I get in the way of a piece when I perform it, the better, I hate to use the word interpretation because it implies fiddling around with the piece when you really shouldn’t be.’

For Lill, performance is like cooking a meal; the nearer you get to the score, or the recipe, the better. ‘If a meal tastes just like the recipe says, then that’s really good preparation, but if there’s too much artificial flavouring in it then it’s not the way the recipe says. It might taste fine but it’s not the same thing.’ It is the same with repeats – Lill adamantly believes you have to follow what Beethoven writes. If in a recipe it says put two eggs, you don’t just decide to leave one out. ‘If a composer puts a request, who are we to say no?’

Concert vs. recording

Describing performance as 3-dimensional with the creator, re-creator and receiver – all of whom are equal – Lill finds a recording flat, plastic-y and 2-dimensional as the receiver is not there live. ‘I love the fact there’s one chance only at getting it right in a performance, it brings out the best in you – challenge and discipline are great strengths. You can never achieve perfection in this life, but you know it’s always just around the corner and that gives me a great buzz.’

Beethoven’s piano sonatas

Lill finds Beethoven never to be in the same mood twice. ‘When I finish playing the last sonata op.111, I feel like I can just start all over again as I never get tired of his music – the range of emotion is just so incredible’ from the serious to the highly comic, from struggle and strife to spiritual uplifting. Lill singled out the lesser-known op. 31 no. 1 G major sonata is a great example of his sense of humour; the right hand always comes a semiquaver before the left. Beethoven had a pupil who always played the left-hand just before the right, so when the pupil would have seen the score, he would have played the chords together.

Beethoven op. 31 no. 1 bars 3-7

Beethoven Piano Sonata in G op. 31 no. 1, bars 3-7

It is Beethoven’s struggle though, that pervades the later sonatas. In the opening of the last piano sonata, op. 111, there is a downward-octave leap of a 7th in the bass. As Lill says, Beethoven ‘throws his pianists around’, he makes his pianists physically struggle.

Beethoven Piano Sonata in C minor op. 111, bar 1

Beethoven Piano Sonata in C minor op. 111, bar 1

Speaking about form, motif and harmony, Lill considers form to be the most crucial to Beethoven – the ‘supreme master of form’. He showed incredible freedom within the confines of the discipline, bending the beams to produce great strength.