Saturday 2 October 2010

Paul Lewis rounds off his summer of Beethoven beautifully (with the help of Denève and the RSNO)

As Stéphane Denève noted in his remarks at the start of last night's concert, Paul Lewis has spent the summer working his way through the Beethoven concerti at the Proms. with a range of conductors.  As regular readers will know, I've been most impressed, having reviewed all the concerts bar the final one with the RSNO and featuring the Emperor (see here, here and here).  I skipped that because less than a month later they were due in Edinburgh to play it to us live.  They did not disappoint.

All the hallmarks of Lewis's Beethoven, so familiar from the first four concertos, and indeed the superb survey of the sonatas he gave at the Queen's Hall between 2005 and 2007, were present.  Those wonderful mixes of speed and clarity, weight and delicacy, were coupled with a feeling of authority.  As his fingers danced up and down the keyboard the results were simply magical.  Alongside him Denève proved a sensitive accompanist, ensuring an excellent balance between soloist and orchestra.  The extreme pianissimos, something that showed a bit of a wobble in last week's Dvořák, were carried off well by the RSNO who were on top form throughout the evening.

Time and again they nailed the key moments, such as the way they built the tension in the lead up to the finale, a wonderfully mischievous grin on Denève's face as he turned to Lewis to ensure they broke in in perfect unison.  Similarly, there was the way they drew out the quite fade-away false ending, before the drama and energy of the final few bars.  Then there was Lewis's spellbinding playing in the last of the mini-cadenzas of the first movement, first its demonstration of his expertise in moving from force to subtlety, then as he seemed to toy with the music, drawing us to the edges of our seats in anticipation of the orchestra's return.  It wasn't quite perfect: some of the orchestral passages could have had a touch more punch and have been that bit crisper, but it was more than good enough.  And the slow movement, a general highlight of the Proms cycle, was sublime.  In an astute programming decision, the Emperor was alone after the interval where it belonged, thus making it rightly the focus of the evening.  This is the second time I've heard that done and it has worked well on both occasions.  It's been said before, but that's no reason not to say it again: Lewis really is among the finest interpreters of Beethoven around today.  A future project is his recording of the Diabelli variations - I can't wait.

The night began with a much newer piece, part of the orchestra's Ten out of 10 series, featuring new music prominently throughout the season.  In this second instalment it was the turn of French composer Guillaume Connesson and his Aleph.  Named for the letter that gave rise to alpha, the piece was inspired by the big bang and is part of a series of three (which Denève and the RSNO have recorded for Chandos).  This was great fun and a nice curtain raiser, bubbling over with energy.  There were some lovely touches of orchestration too, such as the driving string rhythms at the start with the trombones slurring notes over the top.  It was, perhaps, not quite as explosive as one might expect from something after the big bang, but it was most enjoyable none the less.  Put another way, it was enough to get me buying the CD this afternoon!

This was followed by a second French piece.  In some ways the evening seemed calculated to address my criticisms of last week's concert, one of which was that in a piece of operatic interludes, the notes didn't give us any clue as to where they sat dramatically.  Doubtless Denève's decision to add surtitles to Roussel's ballet Le Festin de l'Araignee(The Spider's Feast) was made long before I wrote those comments, but it was inspired.  This was not least the case because I'm not convinced it's the greatest ballet score ever written, so without helping us paint a mental picture of the missing dancers I'm not sure it would have been quite so compelling.  When he first told us this would be happening, I had my doubts - I don't always like it when it's done on TV broadcasts - yet from the moment it flashed up that the snare drum was signifying the arrival of the ants, who then proceeded to groan with effort lifting a leaf, I was sold.  Other highlights included the spider elastically testing the strength of her web and the death throes of the butterfly.  The RSNO were on sparkling form as they vividly recreated these events and more, equally at home in the more comic moments as in the melodramatic; just as well, since next week they head to the recording studio to set it down as part of the fifth in their series of Roussel discs.

It may have been a slightly eclectic mix, with no obvious connection between the French music of the first half and the Beethoven of the second, but as is sometimes the case that didn't seem to matter one jot and it made for a most satisfying evening of listening.  The concert is repeated tonight in Glasgow - if you're in town you should catch it.

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