A Compelling Recital by Paul Lewis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach-Busoni, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mussorgsky: Paul Lewis (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 4.2.2014 (MB)

Bach-Busoni – Chorale Prelude: ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland,’ BWV 659
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.13 in E-flat major, op.27 no.1
Bach-Busoni – Chorale Prelude: ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,’ BWV 639
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.14 in C-sharp minor, op.27 no.2
LisztSchaflos, Frage, und Antwort, S 203; Unstern! sinistre, disaster, S 208; RW – Venezia, S 201
Mussorgsky – Pictures at an Exhibition


This was the first time I had heard Paul Lewis as a recitalist, as opposed to as concerto soloist or ‘accompanist’. Rather to my surprise, it was the second half of Liszt and Mussorgsky that proved most compelling, indeed magnificently so, though that is not to say that there was not much also to enjoy in the first half.

 Busoni’s piano transcription of the Chorale Prelude, Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659, opened with an excellent sense of onward tread. However, I found the right-hand voicing of the chorale a little harsh of tone, at least at times. Still, this was a performance of requisite dignity. Beethoven’s E-flat major sonata, op.27 no.1, followed. The opening was beautifully understated, unassuming, and yet generative. Lewis evinced a clear delight in both the simplicity and power of Beethoven’s inspiration, Haydn an obvious kindred spirit. Concision and experimentalism were equally apparent in this first movement, which sounded, quite rightly, not as a fantasia, but quasi una fantasia. The scherzo seemed somewhat lacking in fire, though relative understatement (again) had its virtues too. Swift, unsentimental, yet full of tone, the Adagio con espressione seemed conceived less in itself than as a transition to the finale. Occasionally, I wished that it might have yielded a little more, but the iron discipline on offer in both of those two movements attested to a definite conception, that of Beethoven more as ‘Classicist’ than ‘Romantic’, however much those labels may be ours rather than his. Crucially, though, there was a sense of sublimation at the return to material from the slow movement, and indeed in the final coda.

 The second Bach-Busoni Chorale Prelude, ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,’ was beautifully sung, again founded upon sure harmonic understanding. Lewis offered a fine command of line. And, somehow, the final cadence surprised. The first movement of the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata benefited from similarly astute voicing, kinship revealed rather than insisted upon. It was taken at a relatively, but not absurdly, swift pace, and was again admirably unsentimental, though nevertheless alert to ‘Romantic’ intimations, both Chopin and Liszt coming to mind on occasion. The wondrous inspiration of that Neapolitan moment shone without exaggeration. The opening of the second moment was well nigh obliterated by audience coughing: a pity, since it proved to be a delightful, deeply musical account in which Lewis permitted the harmony to do the talking and resisted the all-too-common temptation to rush. Slight agogic touches worked veritable magic. So far, so excellent then. Alas, the finale proved something of a disappointment, opening in somewhat brutal fashion, and making its way with too little of a sense of release. Ultimately what was missing here was either the white, modernistic heat of a Pollini or the equally yet differently humanistic metaphysics of a Barenboim. As so often today, a Beethoven performance lacked the final degree of burning conviction, of meaning.

 About the second half I really had no reservations whatsoever. A pianist who performs late Liszt with such conviction and understanding is a true artist. Schlaflos, Frage, und Antwort was schlaflos (sleepless) indeed: nagging repetitions, strange pauses, agitation, loneliness, an ambiguous, ambivalent attempt to transcend. Unstern! sounded in many respects likewise, yet deeper still: an oracle from someone who should be heard, yet who knew that he would not be, let alone that he would be understood. It was the darkest moment of Cassandra-like depression. And yet, in and through its enigmas, perhaps there did emerge something akin to hope; or perhaps not. Liszt’s deceptively straightforward cords seemed to look back to the vanished world of his B minor Sonata – and vanished we knew that world to be. RW – Venezia sounded, if anything, still more ambiguous, as much of Nono’s as Wagner’s Venice. Throughout, there was here an emotional commitment I never quite discovered in Lewis’s Beethoven, however perceptive it may have been.

 The opening Promenade of Pictures at an Exhibition emerged from Liszt’s aged depression, without a break. It thus sounded almost as an affirmation, albeit one that necessarily would then question in its questing. ‘Gnomus’ again emerged from within, sounding properly sinister and indeed remarkably violent. This was a performance of great strength and acuity. The following Promenade then displayed a good impression of, well, promenading, leading into a subtly shaded rendition of ‘Il vecchio castello’, after which the next Promenade stopped short, that we might regard the ‘Tuileries’ games: affectionate and yet not without childish obstinacy. ‘Bydlo’ proved vividly evocative, effortfully seeing off the masterly yet ultimately pointless challenge of Ravel’s orchestration. There was far greater struggle and, yes, humanity here. Fantasy and whimsy of a somewhat Debussyan bent emerged in the ‘Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks’. Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle were sharply differentiated, though united in their war on bronchial terror. A bustling ‘Limoges’ was fiercer, with greater edge, than Ravel’s version; this is a Russian painting, after all. ‘Catacombae’ displayed a Lisztian grandeur – and hopelessness. There was a true sense of Hartmann haunting at the moment of ‘Cum mortuis in lingua mortua’, assured by Lewis’s absolute technical control. Darkness returned with a vengeance for a ride with ‘Baba-Yaga’ that yet evinced considerable chiaroscuro. Pealing of bells at ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ evoked Liszt as well as Boris. Oddly, far greater spirit emerged through Mussorgsky’s materialism than it had in the case of Beethoven. After a suitably thunderous ovation, we were treated as an encore to a rapt account of the fourth of Liszt’s Five Piano Pieces, S 192.

Mark Berry