Paul Lewis at Royal Festival Hall – Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms – 2/4

Bagatelles, Op.119
Sonatas – in E-flat, Hob.49 & in B-minor, Hob.32
Klavierstücke, Op.119

Paul Lewis (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 5 June, 2018
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Reviewed from live BBC Radio 3 broadcast… Unable to get to the Royal Festival Hall as planned, I took advantage of Radio 3’s broadcast of Paul Lewis’s second programme of four exploring Beethoven, Brahms and Haydn, if the first to take place (see link below).

Paul LewisPhotograph: Molina VisualsOf Beethoven’s three sets of Bagatelles, this middle collection of eleven miniatures suits the title well (Opus 126 is more extensive), exuding charm and wit, and occasional strangeness, played by Lewis with style and affection. Contrary to first opinions, only Beethoven could have written these likeable vignettes.

It’s good that Lewis, like his mentor Alfred Brendel, is championing (and recording) Haydn Sonatas. The first of them here, in E-flat (the over-wordy, repetitive Radio 3 announcer nearly talking his way into its opening) was found by Lewis to be urbane, teasing and unpredictable, the opening movement made Olympian. A tragic air hangs over the Adagio – or it did so on this occasion – and the Finale was gently dancing and playful.

I switched off for the broadcast interval music cannily chosen as it was (Brahms’s Haydn Variations, the Theme for which we now know is not by Haydn, Brahms didn’t, and by the way it was heard in Kurt Masur’s New York Phil version) – for you can have too much music when wall-to-wall, and I relished the silence and a cup of tea.

Returning to my seat, as it were, Haydn’s B-minor Sonata made a dramatic statement – restless, anxious – crisply articulated by Lewis without denuding the music’s pensiveness and the pianist’s generosity with repeats was an enhancement. The florid if varied expression of the slow movement is typically ingenious of Haydn – one of the supreme composers – whereas the fly-by Finale was given with dexterity, musical point and dynamism always in place, the expression being of sustained unease.

Opus 119 is Brahms’s ultimate set of Pieces for piano alone, three Intermezzos and a Rhapsody. Lewis caught well the ethereal fantasy of the B-minor starter, music full of confiding thoughts, beyond words, played with the utmost sensitivity, and he made the most of the song-without-words aspect of the E-minor second. It’s difficult to hear the C-major Intermezzo with knowledge of Clifford Curzon’s definitive lightness of touch and dry humour (his Decca recording), but Lewis got close, and he went attacca into the E-flat Rhapsody, heroic and variegated, not barnstorming, further indication of Lewis’s poised and penetrating musicianship.

This was a shorter evening of musical moments than it took to play, even when adding Schubert’s enigmatic Allegretto in C-minor (D915) as an encore, typically searched by Lewis – quality will out.

  • Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for thirty days afterwards)
  • Lewis cancels

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