Paul Lewis at the Royal Festival Hall: From Control to Frenzy

Franz Schubert Sonata in B major, D575
Johannes Brahms Four Balles, Op. 10
Johannes Brahms Three Intermezzos, Op. 117
Franz Liszt Aprés une lecture du Dante

Paul Lewis piano


Schubert’s music is suited to Paul Lewis, a pianist with a composed stage presence, who is more interested in the music subtleties than brashly showing off his skill. The Royal Festival Hall’s audience was therefore in for a treat on Wednesday night, when Lewis’ rendition of Schubert’s Piano Sonata in B, D575 (1817) reaffirmed Lewis’ position as one of the greatest Schubert interpreters of our time.Paul Lewis_ credit Mark McNulty

Schubert’s B major Sonata is not as well known as his later, more monumental sonatas, but the work still exhibits some of Schubert’s most distinctive qualities: his unearthly melodicism and a tendency to take the music into unforeseen places. Lewis has a remarkable ability to never sound harsh or forced, even during loud moments. During the development of the first movement we heard how Lewis could keep pushing forwards, but always gently. And while some over-pedalling at the opening of the fourth movement prevented its cheery tune from lifting, his careful control of dynamics and how he could tease with the third movement’s speed, revealed Lewis’ intimacy with this music.

That Lewis’ playing is never forced was also an asset for his performance of Brahms’ Four Ballades, Op. 10 (1854). It meant that he could capture the underlying urgency in the alternating notes at the close of the First Ballad, as well as the bubbling, concealed angst during the rumbling middle section of the Second. Here, Lewis was careful to keep any crescendo under control, only getting properly loud after a long-winded build-up. His pedalling in the Third Ballad was masterly: used during the melodic sections that contrasted against the menacing, jabbing notes that open the Ballad, it created a murky treble tune. Rather than softening the melody, it made it more unnerving, its murkiness preventing it from escaping from the Ballad’s opening horror.6b8152e9_Paul Lewis © Josep Molina Harmonia Mundi 2

The choice of Liszt’s Après une lecture du Dante (1858) to close the concert signalled something rather novel from Lewis: the piece’s massive chords and octave melodies taken at fantastic speeds make this a highly virtuosic piece that demands considerable showmanship – a trait rather foreign to this pianist. While Lewis certainly has the technical ability to cope with Liszt’s demands, for the opening section Lewis only just managed to do this. What should have been ferocious playing, suffered from stoops in energy and at times it felt as though Lewis was overwhelmed. The performance did improve as it went on, however, with Lewis feeling more comfortable during the melodic middle section, allowing him to play with greater reassurance once the aggressive opening theme returned. Octave passages were dizzying and this time Lewis was able to take advantage of the refinement he excels at: we heard multiple shades of loud, and a transition from fortissimo to a more melodic passage was realised with incredible grace. Lewis has a highly subtle quality in his playing, which is of course highly enviable. Liszt’s Après une lecture du Dante, however, is not a subtle piece.

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