Thursday 3 May 2007

Paul Lewis plays Beethoven

Sadly the last concert for a while, in this repertoire at least. It has been a joy that the Queen's Hall have got Mr Lewis for eight concerts over the last two seasons, in which he has taken us on a journey through Beethoven's piano sonatas, and what concerts they have been. Or, I should more properly say, what concerts the last 5 have been. I discovered this series quite by accident, an accident that will teach me to look more closely at the concert schedules in the future, with the final performance in last year's series. Two things stuck out: a thrillingly fresh reading of the op.79, long a favourite of mine, and an immensely powerful Hammerklavier (not a work I'm usually a fan of). And therein lies Lewis's great talent. My preference in pianists is for the more delicate the better, hence my admiration for the late, great, Wilhelm Kempff. Too often, pianists like to play loud, then thump, and I cannot stand it. One of the things that impresses me about Lewis is that he plays very loud indeed sometimes, but with absolutely clarity and without thumping. And with tremendous passion. The Appassionata last year was a revelation. With his shaggy hair, as he swayed and grunted at the piano he seemed almost like Beethoven himself. He does grunt a lot, in that regard he takes after his teacher Brendel, and this will put some off. In truth, it usually does me, but in his case it seems only to underscore the passion of his playing.

And so, we come to the final programme. Predictably, perhaps, he gave us the op.109, 110 and 111. But we got off to a slightly disappointing start. I think it was something in the way he played it, but in the op.109 the piano sounded almost broken. Certainly the clarity of his playing wasn't quite there, there was something muddled, something deeply un-Lewislike. Either way, I struggled to enjoy it. But I was largely alone. However it is the first time I have felt let down by Lewis in concert.

The op.110 fares better. There is, as there was in the 109, plenty of the classic Lewis light/heavy contrast. A wonderful balance between delicacy and power. The piano sounded better too (which leads me to suspect it was something deliberate in his playing). The wonderfully soft final bars are almost overwhelmed by the heaviness of his breathing - but this does nothing to lessen their impact (indeed, one could argue it is enhanced). However, I don't think the out and out fire of his finest readings was really there. In an odd way it seemed reminiscent of his studio recordings, which always lead me to question why his label don't simply release the broadcasts made for Radio 3 (which capture him far closer to his best).

The op.111 was really more like it: Lewis played the opening movement with real a passion that took me right back to his playing in the Appassionata. He was fierce, grunting as loudly as I've ever heard him. And yet there was humour too, when called for. Certainly, he made it appear as the finest work of the three. It was blighted only by the persistent feedback from somebody's hearing aide. He got a warm reception, and I'm sure we would have had an encore if it had been appropriate.

He has been giving these concerts elsewhere, including at London's Wigmore Hall, and those performances will be broadcast on Radio 3 later this year (as last season's were). I cannot wait. Let us hope he returns to Edinburgh, and particularly the wonderfully intimate Queen's Hall, in the near future. If he visits a venue near you, make the effort to hear him.

The performances have been accompanied by a recording project. Two volumes have been issued, the first containing the op.31 sonatas and a second containing three discs which include the op.79, the Hammerklavier and many more. These are worth having (and the recorded sound is exceptional). But, as stated above, the lack the fire and passion he has in the concert hall.

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