Piano Concerto No.5 in E flat, Op.73 (Emperor)
Symphony No.3 in F, Op.90
Paul Lewis (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Sir Colin Davis
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: 17 June, 2009
Venue: Barbican Hall, London
Eschewing an overture (let alone one of the LSO’s ‘surprise’ premieres), we were plunged straight into the concerto (a most unsatisfactory arrangement, not one though that had any effect on the audience size as the queue for returns demonstrated). Still, with each performance around the 40-minute mark, there was a certain equilibrium to the concert’s two halves.
Paul Lewis is particularly associated with Beethoven, having completed a notable Sonata cycle for Harmonia Mundi (and with the concertos and Diabelli Variations scheduled for the studio). If his opening flourishes were not quite pristine enough, he soon settled, no doubt encouraged by the glowing playing of the LSO, Sir Colin Davis’s conducting typically purposeful and genial. As if to disabuse its nickname, this ‘Emperor’ was somewhat anti-heroic (refreshingly), often a delicate and conversational account of the outer movements, details in the orchestra emerging with unusual clarity thanks to Lewis’s accommodation, but with no lack of energy (particularly in the finale). The slow movement was spacious and hushed, yet conversely Lewis was a little loud and hard-toned and lacking easeful passage (all a bit studied); the sentiment of the music was more in the orchestra, lofty and consoling if sabotaged at its midpoint by someone’s bleeper-alarm going off and continuing for many seconds unchecked (let me know the date of the public flogging).
Curiously, although there was much to admire in Lewis’s thoughtful and refined musicianship, and the obvious rapport between him and Davis, this ‘Emperor’ came and went. The longer-lasting impression came in the Brahms, given a passionate and driven performance yet with a flexibility and dynamic variance that was constantly compelling. There was a real emotional surge in this first movement (even more so come the repeat of the exposition), the barlines disappearing from Brahms’s score yet the music as a whole absolutely sure of itself in both declaration and direction.
This was the art that disguises art, a spontaneous and generous performance, the middle movements lyrically beguiling while soul-bearing (Emanuel Abbühl, oboe, Andrew Marriner, clarinet, and David Pyatt, horn, quite outstanding in their solos) and with a furtive and trenchant finale that was a hard-won victory to its peaceful but not laurel-resting conclusion (the spell somewhat broken by too-early applause). All in all, rather special, human and wise.