Pianist Paul Lewis in Conversation with Geoffrey Newman
Paul Lewis has every right to be considered one of the finest British pianists of this era. A prize winner at the 1994 World Piano Competition in London and a student of Alfred Brendel, he first received worldwide acclaim for his recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas for Harmonia Mundi from 2005 to 2007, which also won Gramophone awards. He then followed up with recordings of Schubert sonatas of the highest distinction. Recently, he has recorded Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and has begun to establish himself in chamber music and lieder collaborations. He is currently undertaking an extended tour playing Beethoven again, this time featuring the last three sonatas. Before he arrived in Vancouver, I was able to talk to the pianist about his past and present Beethoven exploits, and how he might like to proceed in the future, especially with respect to repertoire.
GN: You recorded your Beethoven sonata cycle about a decade ago and have performed all of these sonatas many times. Yet you are touring with more Beethoven this year. Is this the beginning of something new?
PL: I am certainly in no rush to do a new cycle – if that’s what you mean – but I still feel a magnetic pull to the greatest of these sonatas. They are simply the ‘Everests’ of all writing for the piano, the most challenging and, in many ways, the most universally human with all their sense of struggle and resolution. The late sonatas, in particular, continue to fascinate me as to the range and depth of what they say and in the sheer ‘weirdness’ of the way they go about saying it. By the time you reach Op. 111, you feel a true sense of finality but it is like the whole world is opening up at the same time.
GN: Do you ever go back to your recordings as a sort of reference for yourself?
PL: No, actually I don’t. My interpretations are constantly changing as I move on musically. An observer may think that many of the things I do now – the way I phrase a passage for example – are simply technical changes. But I think it impossible to separate technical questions from musical ones, and what have evolved for me are definitely musical changes. My objective has always been to discover (and expose) the true logic and meaning in these pieces – and often that takes a long time.
GN: I have recently talked about a possible parallel between Beethoven’s late sonatas and his late quartets. Both appear to involve the composer’s rapid alternation between a full expressive participation in an outside world and the retreat to a very personal world that keeps trying to say something different. Do you think that this parallel is meaningful?
PL: Yes, absolutely. A good example of this is the slow movement of the ‘Hammerklavier’. Towards the end, it builds so strongly and passionately to fortissimo chords – then it just stops. All that is left is stillness; the attachment to all that previous feeling has vanished. With his last sonata (Op. 111), it actually seems that Beethoven had gone just about as far as he could go with the piano. To express even more of his inner world, he genuinely required a different medium, and the string quartet provided it. Interestingly, there exist piano transcriptions of some movements from the late quartets (including Op. 131), and I have always wanted to investigate them more thoroughly. They would make an unusual recording.
GN: When one listens to Alfred Brendel, Claudio Arrau, Wilhelm Kempff and other distinguished pianists of previous years, one finds a tendency for their Beethoven to get slower as they get older. Do you find that as you play the sonatas again?
PL: Well, I’m not that old yet – I’m only 42. I suppose that is right though. Perhaps the more a pianist has lived, the more detail and structural lines you can work with, so you are not impelled to push things forward with as much conscious effort. But the idea of ‘tempo’ is tricky, since it is not just a matter of physical time (pulse). Some performances appear to be slow but in fact are not slow in clock time – and vice versa. One’s perception of tempo has a great deal to do with the ‘character’ of the playing, how the artist illuminates the notes and puts the motion in your mind.
GN: When you take a set programme on an extended tour, do you think your performances vary much? I always wonder about this when I see differences between my own review of a recital and one of the same programme by another city’s reviewer. I can never determine if it is me who is different or whether the artist actually played differently.
PL: There is probably quite a bit of difference between my performances on tour, and a host of factors come into play beyond simple things like whether you were more tired or tense on a given evening. One key factor is the piano you are playing, and pianos can vary considerably. Some open up your range; others can potentially limit your interpretation. But my perception of the audience is critical too. If I feel their concentration, the energy created can make a great deal of difference to my performance and the sense of occasion. Then there are the acoustic differences of the venues, which can produce a variety of different feedback to the piano sound. I am always aware of this while I am playing, but I have also learned that what the performer hears is not necessarily what anyone else hears.
GN: But there also must be subtle differences between your practicing and preparation for a given concert and what actually comes out on stage?
PL: Yes, no matter what way you prepare for a given concert, it all feels quite different when you come on stage. Take the opening of the ‘Tempest’ sonata or the slow movement of the ‘Hammerklavier’. In both cases, I have thought long and hard about tempo, pulse and the sense of space one needs to create in the music. Nonetheless, when I come on stage and sit down at the piano, my original intentions may just not feel right, so I will subtly modify things until I do feel comfortable. Yet these (often small) adjustments tend to change the significance and meaning of later passages, opening up new musical possibilities that I hadn’t thought of before. And all this takes place while I am playing! So exactly what emerges from a performance really varies with each specific set of circumstances. It is not often appreciated how much of a pianist’s learning is done quite spontaneously ‘on the job’.
GN: In a recent interview with violinist Tasmin Little, I asked her what she felt were the characteristics of a quintessentially British violin playing. She cited the ‘desire for a clean, direct and honest articulation, always sensitive to the subtle inner beauties in the music’. I would probably add: an intellectual astuteness and thoughtfulness, typically eschewing extravagance. We agreed that the (late) Hugh Bean was a prototype from a few decades ago. I think these characteristics also fit your playing to some extent, as they do a variety of celebrated British pianists over the years. Do you actually think of yourself as a ‘British’ pianist?
PL: That is a difficult question: I really don’t know. My principal teacher, Alfred Brendel, was Viennese. Joan Havill, with whom I studied at Guildhall, had Cyril Smith as a teacher but then studied later with Hungarians such as Louis Kentner. My first teacher, Ryszard Bakst, was Polish. So I am the product of a variety of different influences. Perhaps traditional designations like Russian School, French School, Italian School and so on might have meant something in the past, but I doubt that they mean much today – the world is somehow a smaller place! For example, compare two Russian pianists such as Boris Berezovsky and Nikolai Lugansky. They’re both wonderful pianists but they play so differently. Is only one of them quintessentially Russian?
Speaking of Hugh Bean, I remember him very well, and I cannot think of a kinder or more encouraging musician. He happened to be the concertmaster for my debut with the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1994 when I was 21. Perhaps I was a little nervous, but as we were about to go on stage, he said to me: ‘Don’t worry about a thing, young man. We will be behind you every step of the way’.
GN: As a student of Alfred Brendel, I always wonder how much you keep in touch with other students of this remarkable teacher.
PL: Till Fellner and I were the two regular students of Brendel during the 1990s; his main student from the previous generation was Imogen Cooper. I have long kept in touch with Imogen. We have played together as a duo many times, and she is in fact the godmother of one of my children.
GN: You are much more active these days in chamber music collaborations and as an accompanist for lieder recitals. Is this something that you plan to continue?
PL: I have appeared in chamber music festivals in years past where widely-different players come together for a very brief time to play selected works. This offers the performer a sort of ‘edge of your seat’ excitement since you don’t quite know what your colleagues are going to do. It is only in more recent years that I have started to find real ‘partners’. Tenor Mark Padmore and I have often performed the three Schubert song cycles, and in the last few years I’ve taken some very enjoyable tours with the Vertavo Quartet and violinist Lisa Batiashvilli. I have found that these more settled collaborations offer more of an opportunity to express one’s real intentions; the more ’at home’ I feel in a partnership, the freer I’m able to be within it.
GN: I know you have played the Beethoven concertos many times, and recorded them. But I have little feeling for what other parts of the concerto repertoire you have really explored or want to explore.
PL: There are a great number of well-known concertos that I would like to play, although it’s sometimes a challenge to find time to learn new ones. I have performed the Brahms D-minor Concerto quite a lot – and recently recoded it – and the Brahms B-flat will come into the frame in 2017. I’m also playing the Schumann Concerto this year. There are many Mozart concertos in my repertoire, and I used to play the big romantic concertos – Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov – quite a lot, although I haven’t for some years now. Maybe it’s time to look at those again.
GN: You did play the Mozart concerto, K. 414, in the string quartet transcription with the Vertavo Quartet in the fall. I remember certain pianists such as Peter Frankl who used to champion all three of K. 413-415 in this form, eventually recording them for ASV in the early 1990s. Do you think these are convincing in this presentation – that one does not need the full orchestra?
PL: Yes, I think they work very well. The only addition to the string quartet that one might want is a double bass, to provide additional weight. As far as playing these works this way, I don’t think there is that much difference from playing them with an orchestra, except that the piano can be useful in filling in the continuo part in the tuttis. Doing the above three concertos together this way makes a very attractive combination, and I remember that Alfred Brendel used to mention even others.
GN: As a general matter, do you think there is anything very different about playing Mozart?
PL: In Mozart, there is no excess clothing, so to speak. His balance and organization are so pristine, yet he is so wide ranging in feeling. You must give priority to transparency but you also must give full due to the music’s dramatic development as well. If you are successful, then you can achieve a wonderful fluidity and sense of cohesion. But again, everything must be as clear as day; there is no place to hide in this music.
GN: You mentioned the Schumann concerto?
PL: Yes, I have recently returned to this concerto after 15 years, and will play it in concert in the coming months. I’m playing it this year in France, Switzerland and at the Tanglewood and Blossom Festivals in the summer. I’ll also play it with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, but without conductor – which is rarely, if ever, done. I have performed Mozart concertos this way and, having spoken to a few conductors, I see no reason why this cannot be attempted. Both the first and last movements of the Schumann can be difficult, and I will have to figure out ways to get everyone on the same page. The first is tricky because it is the most difficult musically speaking; the last is rhythmically challenging, but should be possible if everybody can feel the natural swing of it – as long as it doesn’t go too fast!
GN: Out of incidental interest, what do you think of the use of a fortepiano (for example, a Broadwood) in some of this repertoire, and of course Beethoven?
PL: I actually think it is admirable and feel that, in some ways, one can get closer to the sound and articulation that was really intended. A good example is Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ sonata, where on the modern concert grand it is almost impossible to get the type of pianissimo that Beethoven wished. You need a shallower keyboard, and you could struggle for hours trying to approximate this sound on the concert grand when it comes out so naturally from the earlier instrument.
GN: The Vancouver Recital Society evidently thought of you as a piano expert in asking you to choose their new Steinway a few years ago. What sort of characteristics do you look for when picking a piano for yourself – and for others?
PL: A lot of this is a matter of feel, but above all you are looking for a piano that has a genuine tonal ‘character’ as well as a relative evenness in reproduction across all frequencies and at all volumes. There are some weak spots in most pianos but, with the best instruments, they’re usually insignificant enough not to pose a problem. There is considerable variability in the pianos built by a company over time. Some recent Steinways built in Hamburg have certain differences in the action, and are frustratingly difficult to play. On the other hand, the Steinways now coming from New York appear to be improving all the time. Yet to experience the unique and legendary character of the Steinway sound, you probably have to travel back to those instruments made many years ago. There is the same type of quality variation in Bosendorfer over time, although those made in the 1950’s are remarkable. My own instrument is a Hamburg Steinway D, built in 1981. It is obviously a big responsibility to pick a concert grand for any venue or organization, but I would use the same basic criteria, always keeping in mind the specific characteristics of the venue(s) that will house the instrument.
Previously published in a slightly different form on http://www.vanclassicalmusic.com