Paul Lewis Beethoven (1) [BBCSO/Bělohlávek]

Egmont, Op.84 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.1 in C, Op.15
The Creatures of Prometheus, Op.43 – Overture
Piano Concerto No.4 in G, Op.58

Paul Lewis (piano)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Jiří Bělohlávek

Reviewed by: Alan Pickering

Reviewed: 21 July, 2010
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London

Paul Lewis. Photograph: Jack LiebeckIn Proms seasons of yesteryear a tradition of “Beethoven Nights” developed. This year that custom has been revived with two such evenings. The first of these (the second is on 27 July), played to a capacity audience, began Paul Lewis’s survey this season of Beethoven’s five numbered piano concertos.

The programme opened with the Overture that Beethoven composed in 1810 to precede his incidental music for a play by Goethe on the theme of the oppression of Flanders by the Spaniards some 240 years earlier. For all that the subject is sombre, and the musicianship was of a high order (a few slips aside) the performance was devoid of atmosphere. Count Egmont’s death, by decapitation, fuelled the uprising and ultimately the formation of the Netherlands, and needed to be celebrated rather more – more brio was needed.

Jiří BělohlávekThe other overture of the evening, to Beethoven’s only ballet score, The Creatures of Prometheus (1801), is a jolly affair. The story is based on the Greek mythological tale of Prometheus who challenged the gods and, with fire stolen from Zeus, offered mankind the ability to control its destiny. Beethoven took, as his inspiration, Napoleon, who was seen as a modern-day Prometheus and architect of a brave new world. The overture abounds in joy and celebration. Enthusiastically played we reached the exciting coda all too soon.

Paul Lewis has recently recorded Beethoven’s piano concertos with Jiří Bělohlávek conducting. Piano Concerto No 1 (not his first such work, despite the numbering) was written, and first performed, in 1795 but not published until 1801, after being revised by the composer in 1800. Lewis and Bělohlávek offered musicianship of the very highest order with piano and orchestra seemingly tied together (only rarely was balance questionable with some detail of Lewis’s playing lost); no lack of brio here, and although interplay was exceptional, there were suggestions of the performance being too studied, if certainly not when Lewis paraded the longest and dottiest of Beethoven’s three first-movement cadenzas.

The highlight of the evening was Piano Concerto No.4. Beethoven broke with tradition here, opening with the solo piano. Unusual as this would have seemed to the audiences of the day it received critical acclaim, no doubt because of the subtle way the orchestra answers, setting the scene for an unusually close relationship that continues throughout the concerto. The first movement is quite poetic, full of elegant phrases with much dialogue between piano and orchestra leading to a second movement that is full of dramatic exchanges, the piano a calming influence. Lewis expressed the concerto’s opening solo with a charm and sensitivity that bode well and he did not disappoint across the work’s course, Bělohlávek and the BBCSO matching him.

Paul Lewis returns to the Proms on 29 July (Concerto No.2), 6 August (No.3) and 6 September (the ‘Emperor’).

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