Paul Lewis – Beethoven and Beyond

Written by: Ben Hogwood

Paul Lewis. Photograph: Jack Liebeck

This year (2010) the BBC Proms has featured a complete cycle of Beethoven’s piano concertos, each worked played by Paul Lewis. His role in the festival has neatly coincided with Harmonia Mundi’s release of his recordings of these works, made in the studio with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bělohlávek.

At the Proms, however, Lewis has been paired with different conductors (including Bělohlávek, in concertos 1 and 4), performing the Second with Andris Nelsons and the CBSO, the Third with the Hallé and Mark Elder, and finally the ‘Emperor’, to be performed on Monday 6 September with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Stéphane Denève. When I spoke to Lewis, he was four-fifths of the way through the odyssey. He admits to being tired, but happy. “I enjoyed the Third concerto, and I’ve been enjoying them all greatly so far, having worried about the cycle for the best part of three years! I now have a bit of a break before the Emperor, but in between now and then I’ve got a recital in Germany, and am performing the concerto in Europe, so there’s not much of a summer break, if any at all!”.


Lewis’s recordings of the concertos are a relatively quick follow-up to his complete Beethoven sonata cycle, though this appears to be something of a coincidence. “With the recordings of the sonatas, it wasn’t especially planned out that things should run in that order. I played the sonata cycle over all those years, and having recorded them I wasn’t thinking of recording the concertos at that stage, but Harmonia Mundi suggested it. Recording the sonatas was preparation in a sense, but of course recording with an orchestra was totally different”.

Jiří Bělohlávek

Has he found it difficult to play the concertos with different conductors, having recorded them all with Bělohlávek? “It’s been very good. Before the Proms started the only conductor I hadn’t worked with was Andris Nelsons, and that was just a joy to play the Second with him. I’ve played together with Sir Mark Elder before, and the partnerships I’ve had with Stéphane have worked very well too. I have found it a very rewarding experience; it would have been horrendous if we had had a partnership that didn’t work!”.


Lewis has been aware of the Proms cycle for some time, and concedes it has preyed on his mind. “It’s been a worry. I’ve known about it for three years, and a lot of the time I’ve been thinking to myself, ‘Am I really going to do this?’ It’s nice to know it’s worked so far. With the Proms, we left it up to Roger Wright as to the order in which we were going to perform the concertos, and he came back with this plan. To do the First and the Fourth together in the first concert was very good for me, because the Fourth is the most difficult technically, and it benefited me not having to walk out and play it cold. The way it’s fallen is absolutely fine.”

With regards to the studio recordings, Lewis is wholly satisfied with the way in which they worked. “I was a bit concerned about it, but we had a generous amount of session and rehearsal time, and so we had lots of time to work with the relationship. [Bělohlávek is] such a strong listener, and such an aware musician, and the way the performances developed it felt good. If we’d had less time it would have been more fraught, but there was plenty of space for us.”

Paul Lewis. Photograph: Jack Liebeck

Was Alfred Brendel, one of Lewis’s previous teachers, consulted for advice? “I haven’t played to Alfred in about ten years, but we’re in touch, and we’ve had a good relationship. He’s been very willing to help me out, and has given a few tips here and there. It’s hard to say what the most valuable of those is, as he has been providing more general examples on the way of working. With the concertos there are specific things, and with the Fourth concerto I was able to see a copy in Vienna where Beethoven had added more in pencil, and I wouldn’t have known about that had it not been for Alfred.”


The ‘wrapping up’ of Lewis’s encounters with Beethoven will be with a release of his recently completed recording of the Diabelli Variations. “That’s done and it’s out next year. I played it last year in recital programmes, and recorded it in December. We did a complete take to start with, and then recorded it in sections. When we thought we’d got it in the bag, we did another complete performance, with just the producer and engineer in the studio, and that actually turned out to be the one we took most from.”


The composer on whom Lewis will be focussing most in the immediate future will be Schubert. “That’s the next big thing that I’m doing, from July next year until about 2013. The plan is to play and record all the major piano music from the Wanderer Fantasy to the final sonata, and to also perform the song-cycles with Mark Padmore.” This has required intense preparation on his part. “It just takes such a long time to get into these pieces. Ten years or so ago I did a sonata cycle in performance, and I’ve been looking at them on and off since then, but it’s amazing how different they seem now, and the different shades of dark they have. It’s always dark, isn’t it?! But I think it is always important to devote that amount of time to the music, and to try to immerse yourself in it, the music requires that of you.” He is also acutely aware of the composer’s emotional fragility. “I think the most bizarre example is the slow movement of D959, with that crazy outburst – where does that fit in? It’s so radical, it’s amazing, and even 200 years later it’s still shocking to the ears.”


Lewis and Padmore have developed a strong partnership. “Mark’s wonderful to work with, and the beauty of his voice and the intelligence of his singing are both major characteristics of his approach. He cares so much about the text, and it’s fascinating to work with him. Next year we’ll be doing Beethoven’s An die ferne Geliebte, as well as the Schubert cycles, and we will be recording Schwanengesang. You really feel like you’re getting in to something working with him.”

The importance of playing Schubert’s songs is not lost on Lewis. “If you love Schubert, how can you not want to be involved with the songs? They are so much of what Schubert is about. To work out the Lieder is to inform the solo piano music, and often you can find parallels between the two. Just comparing the bareness of ‘Der Lindenbaum’, from “Winterreise”, with the opening of the A minor Sonata D784, there is this sparseness, and the silence is so telling. I find I am constantly cross-referencing between the two forms.”


A feature of our chat has been Paul Lewis’s outright enthusiasm for the works he is performing, as well as a sense of humility at being in the presence of such great music. Such an approach looks set to endear him still further to audiences and record-buying public alike.

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