Flights of Fancy from Thoughtful Paul Lewis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach-Busoni, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mussorgsky: Paul Lewis (piano). Sheldonian Theatre, Oxford, 21.3.2014

Bach-Busoni: Chorale Prelude ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’, BWV659
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 13 in E flat major, Op 27. No. 1
Bach-Busoni: Chorale Prelude ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’, BWV639
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C sharp minor ‘Moonlight’; Op 27. No. 2
Liszt: Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort, S203;
Unstern: Sinistre, Disastro, S208;
R.W. – Venezia, S201
Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition


This concert reprised the recital Paul Lewis gave at the Royal Festival Hall last month (see review ), but it was none the worse for that, the Sheldonian being virtually full. The programme was imaginatively constructed, contrasting various flights of fancy through different structures and musical means.

 The first half itself comprised two pairs of a Prelude and Sonata – and it was no mean feat on Lewis’s part to remain completely absorbed in the musical progression between the two components of each, and thereby to ward off any applause which might disrupt the link. Lewis’s performance of Busoni’s arrangement of the Prelude on Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland began with an expectant tread in the left hand’s octaves, over which he brought an incisive tone to the phrases of the chorale melody, though perhaps not as much as Busoni required, with his marking in the score that the melody should strongly accented.

It has been remarked before, if the second of Beethoven’s op.27 pair of Sonatas is the ‘Moonlight’, then the first could be described as the ‘Sunlight’. Here, Lewis established a mellow glow in its opening pulsing chords, after which he allowed the whole Sonata to flow seamlessly from one section to another – Beethoven directs that each succeeding section should be commenced immediately and so the structure is very fluid. Lewis certainly expressed passion in the Allegro molto, but it was kept under control; where the opening Andante was personal and reflective, the contrasting Adagio in the middle of the Sonata was comparatively stately and dignified. Lewis soon brushed that aside with the vigorous contrapuntal lines which set off the Allegro vivace section, already anticipating the torrent of energy unleashed in the running lines of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata’s mighty fugue.

 Although a hypnotic, lilting rhythm underpinned the second Chorale Prelude, on Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, the phrases came over as a little choppy and they slightly unsettled the meditative serenity. However, all was set right by Lewis in the ‘Moonlight’ Sonata, the first movement taken relatively swiftly, but growing outwards – steadily and naturally – from what seemed like the initial spark of an idea in Lewis’s mind. There were more perceptible pauses between Beethoven’s clearly delineated movements of this Sonata, but not so much as to break either the tonal connection between them – all three are tied to the tonal centre of C sharp (or D flat, its enharmonic equivalent) – or the sense of spiritual cohesion. Hence, the amiable Allegretto took up from the flow of the first movement, whilst Lewis’s emphatic syncopations looked ahead to the fury of the finale, drawing the Sonata’s affinities together in the absence of any more obvious motivic or harmonic development.

 The three pieces by Liszt which opened the second half are late works. Although only bagatelles in scale, like Beethoven’s examples they encapsulate whole worlds in their own right. Despite their melodic simplicity, Schlaflos (‘Sleepless’) and R.W. – Venezia in particular explore strange harmonic regions: augmented fifth chords in both, and tritones and diminshed chords in the former also. Lewis exploited the binary structure of Schlaflos well – wild and restless in the opening question, and then finding a temporary resolution in the answer. Unstern (‘Ill-fate’) was more hectic still, though its roving lines were also pacified in the healing, Brucknerian chords at the end. R.W. – Venezia is Liszt’s tribute to Wagner on the latter’s death. Its yearning sequences conjure up the world of Tristan, particularly the opera’s doleful Act Three Prelude.

 After these heady discursions, the foursquare chords of the ‘Promenade’ opening Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition came as something of a relief. Indeed, each time its theme came round in Lewis’s performance of this cycle, it seemed like an inhaling of fresh air between each intensely sketched vignette. ‘The Gnome’ was plucky, for instance, the ‘Old Castle’ depicted as a wistful memory, the levity of the ‘Tuileries’ giving way without warning to the high drama of ‘Bydlo’, creepy tremolos in ‘Catacombs’, and the bustle of the ‘Marketplace at Limoges’ rightly projected in much bolder colours than the otherwise comparably brisk and fizzing music of the ‘Unhatched Chickens’. For all the particularity of each section, though, Lewis’s interpretation was not at all episodic, most notably in the way that he developed the ‘Promenade’ leitmotiv on each appearance, culminating in its transfiguration as the ‘Great Gate of Kiev’. With current political events in Ukraine, the undoubted majesty of Lewis’s playing of this patriotic statement could not help but seem particularly poignant, all the more so given the striking contrast he pointed up with the sudden, but stoic and solemn interjection of a strain of Russian Orthodox chant given twice in the melange. Setting politics aside, this was a considered reading of a complicated work, consistent with the thoughtfulness demonstrated throughout this concert

 For an encore, Lewis played another little late work by Liszt, the third item from the Five Little Pieces, S192, with Schubertian charm and delicacy.

Curtis Rogers


Leave a Comment