Paul Lewis – Beethoven

Piano Sonatas, Op.31 – No.1 in G; No.2 in D minor (Tempest); No.3 in E flat
Piano Sonata in F sharp, Op.78

Paul Lewis (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 12 October, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

I have heard Paul Lewis play Liszt and Schubert, and now Beethoven, the repertoire in which his mentor and teacher Alfred Brendel has been most successful. Despite – or because of – the influence of one of the 20th-century’s pianistic giants, Lewis has developed into a multi-faceted musician – as anyone hearing him ‘go reptile’ (as an old pianist friend used to say) in Constant Lambert’s The Rio Grande at this year’s Proms will know.

But what of Lewis’s Beethoven? The start of the G major Sonata was very warm but, for me, over-pedalled; the dynamic range was far too restrained, and the second subject brought a marginal slowing and an even more romantic sound. Yet despite this tonal warmth, the development was stiffly phrased and the pauses between the codetta’s final chords – which elicited a laugh from the audience! – were too long. In the slow movement there was an element of fantasy in the arabesques, but the requisite sense of menace was largely missing. The finale was rather ponderous.

In “The Tempest”, an interpretative pattern was established: once again the first subject was slightly too slow and the second subject and development were romantically turned; dynamic contrasts were limited and the use of agogic pauses came close to being a mannerism. The Adagio was slow and peaceful, but the finale needed more power and fantasy, and tension was allowed to drop.

Fortunately, the bagatelle-like Op.78 brought greater tonal and dynamic shading and some subtle changes of tempo; indeed here one could hear directly the influence of Brendel. The final, E flat Sonata of the Opus 31 collection was much as anticipated: the opening movement was marginally too slow, the dynamic range was limited, pauses were too long, and much of the phrasing was soft and romanticised. In the ‘Menuetto’ third movement the tempo was laboured and the finale failed to catch fire.

Despite these shortcomings, there were occasions when Lewis totally commanded one’s attention and some of his legato phrasing in the slow movements was very beautiful. But the severely limited dynamic range and the use of pauses as an expressive device seemed ill-conceived. Maybe the dynamic range could be justified by reference to some form of spurious authenticity, but that doesn’t equate with the overused sustaining pedal.

Nevertheless, it will be fascinating to hear how Lewis’s Beethoven evolves; unlike many pyrotechnicians, he clearly has an intellectual and emotional command of his repertoire. Lewis has just issued the Opus 31 sonatas on Harmonia Mundi (HMC 901902).

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