Paul Lewis: Brains and Brawn Synthesized

J. S. Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, Mussorgsky, Paul Lewis (piano), Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, New York, 26.3.2014 (SSM)

Bach: Chorale Prelude on “Nun komm, der Heide  Heiland,” BWV 659 (arr. Busoni)
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 13 in E-flat Major, Op. 27, No. 1, “quasi una fantasia”
Bach: Chorale Prelude on “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” BWV 639 (arr. Busoni)
Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight”
Liszt: Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort, S. 203
Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, S. 208
R. W.—Venezia, S. 201
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

Liszt: Piano Piece in F-sharp Major, No. 4, from Fünf kleine Klavierstücke, S. 192


Paul Lewis has never conveyed in person or in photographs the impression of being one of the super-physical pianists of our day: a Kissin, a Hamelin or a Berezovsky. In fact he has presented the opposite image, one of weltschmerzian seriousness, a Schubert maybe but not a Beethoven. This is true even though it was Lewis’s highly praised recordings of Beethoven sonatas that brought him into the forefront of world-class pianists. His sensitivity, coolness and reserve distinguished him from the legions of Beethoven sonata exponents, the Schnabels, Gilels and Richters. Lewis himself wrote in 2008: “Much is made of the physical force of Beethoven’s music. While it is true that there is often a strong physicality about it, it would be wrong to assume that his extremes are predominantly physically violent…. A sforzando shouldn’t always hit you between the eyes, a fortissimo shouldn’t always punch below the belt.”

Maybe not below the belt, but there were some heavy punches thrown here. Take, for example, the Presto agitato from Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.” In Lewis’s CD from 2007, there are instances where the second chord that completes the opening phrase can barely be heard. Here there was no mistaking that Beethoven marked these sforzando.

Muscularity vying with sensitivity could be a heading for this program. The sensitive side was reflected (as he symbolically genuflected) in the introductory Bach pieces played without pause before each Beethoven sonata. The chorale preludes, “Nun Komm, der Heide Heiland” and “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ,” in transcriptions for piano by Busoni, set the tone for what followed. Lewis made a strong musical connection in choosing the Chorale Prelude BWV 659 with a phrase that repeats a few measures into Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13.

All the works on the program were in dialectical opposition: loud and soft, sacred and profane, leading to a synthesis of both. That synthesis came at the end of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition: its conclusion at “The Great Gate of Kiev” succeeded in an imaginative way to end this recital at the doors of heaven.

The second half of the program also opened with short pieces, this time by Liszt. Not much can be said about these three fragments which seemed no more than pages from a notebook. Coming in at about ten minutes, all three sketches were mercifully brief: the kind of piano music that Liszt churned out in volumes. Only in the final section of the “R.W.-Venezia” does there seem to be a reason for its inclusion, harkening back to Beethoven’s da-da-da dum.

If there was any question as to Lewis’s ability to confidently negotiate works requiring tremendous strength, it was put to rest in his performance of Mussourgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Although Lewis’s interpretation of this manic-depressive masterpiece may not have had that in-the-blood closeness to Mussourgsky as it had in the hands of a Pletnev, Richter or Kissin, it did have Lewis’s own stamp upon it. This uniqueness clearly came from a careful reading of the score: every section had its own personality. Even the rondo-like returns to the “Promenade” seemed less like iterations than the introduction of totally new themes. Lewis understood just what is gnomic about the “Gnomus” movement, filling it with gnarly, spidery turns and twists. At times Lewis nearly pushed away his piano bench as if he needed more room to come down on the keyboard. This changed the character of a sketch such as “Bydlo,” often played as a plodding and lumbering walk, into an earth-shattering trek.

The manic sections of this work did not escape Lewis either. The flittering “Tuileries” and scampering “Marketplace of Limoges” and especially the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” all caught the over-the-top comic spirit of the score.

The only cavil I had was with the “Catacombs,” an awfully difficult piece to pull off successfully. The freedom given the performer by the many fermatas in the score allows for a range of interpretations that can run as fast as a minute or as slow as five. Played too slowly, as Lewis did here, it becomes just a series of chords; too fast and it loses its morbid character.

This was just a minor blip, if a blip at all, in an otherwise intelligently-conceived and totally convincing recital.

Stan Metzger

For reviews of this program as presented in other venues:

 Flights of Fancy from Thoughtful Paul Lewis,

A Compelling Recital by Paul Lewis

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