Paul Lewis Plays Beethoven

Sonata in F, Op.54
Sonata in E, Op.27/1 (Quasi una fantasia)
Sonata in C sharp minor, Op.27/2 (Moonlight)
Sonata in E flat, Op.7
Sonata in G minor, Op.49/1

Paul Lewis (piano)

Reviewed by: Kenneth Carter

Reviewed: 18 January, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

During 2007, Paul Lewis is performing all the Beethoven piano sonatas in the UK, at other venues in Europe and in the USA. Classical Source’s archive contains reviews (in 2005) from Perth, Australia and the Wigmore Hall, London. Harmonia Mundi has so far issued 4 CDs (one on its own, three in a box).

This recital was fully attended. Paul Lewis is a hot ticket. He has received regular coaching from Alfred Brendel, present among the audience. At the concert’s official-seeming end, after Opus 7, hands clapped vigorously, arms stretched upwards and a very large bouquet of flowers was wielded in.Is this some ‘Wunderkind’ then? Two years ago, I heard him play Mozart’s Concerto in A (K488) at a Prom with the BBC Symphony and Sir Andrew Davis. Lewis played crisply yet sensitively. I was impressed.

Beethoven is ‘another country’, though.

Lewis’s Beethoven is an animal in prime condition – muscular, highly intelligent and well-bred. With agile step and head held high, he prances over the plain, leaps confidently over thickets and makes a rocket-like beeline for home. He can dally, too, snuffle the flowers and paw at the grass. Lewis is young yet. His choices can take you by surprise. There is interpretative promise and skill. However, under his fingers the sonatas do sound rather like studies.

Speeds were sleek and fast, metronomic perhaps. Rhythms were exact, almost mechanical. Phrasing was often minimal – but turned up every now and then, in strange places and rather exaggeratedly. The rule of thumb seemed to be: no time for care or finesse; I charge ahead too forcefully to hang around waiting for myself. (Contrast this with Simon Nicolls’s recital at The Red Hedgehog, reviewed elsewhere on this site.)

At times, Lewis changes style. His touch softens, he lingers over harmonic changes and caresses his phrasing – c.f. the introductions to opuses 54 and 27/Number 1. Skilfully played, they were also dragging, mannered and winsome. Lewis is too honest for the discrepancy not to jar. The slow movement to Opus 7 was a dignified success, however.

In the Adagio sostenuto of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, triplets rippled nimbly – in the andante manner of a Schubert accompaniment. Beethoven’s ‘melody’ was now highlighted atop the triplets – bare, minimal and remote. It lost rather than gained in the clarity of this unfamiliar exposure. The Presto agitato finale lacked animal vitality. I had a sense of notes, but not of passion.

The first movement of Opus 7 was long, abrasive and virile. Its bravura had something of the brilliance of a study anticipating Chopin or Liszt. The close to the Rondo was exemplary. With great yet unobtrusive control Lewis brought the loud scampering down quieter and still quieter until the whispering came to the gentlest of halts.

Opus 49/Number 1 may have been an encore. It was not on the programme, but Lewis spoke of it as though it should have been. (“The concert’s not finished yet.”) Whatever the context, I thoroughly enjoyed this work. It is light-hearted and rather insouciant. Paul Lewis is good at such things.

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