Paul Lewis Not Quite at His Best in Beethoven

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven: Paul Lewis (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 11.6.2015 (CC)

Piano Sonata in E major, Op. 109
Piano Sonata in A flat, Op. 110
Piano Sonata in C minor, Op 111

This was the first of two performances of the last three Beethoven sonatas that Paul Lewis gave in one evening. This one started at 6.00pm with the second following at 9pm but unfortunately I could not attend both recitals.

It is a testament to Lewis’ standing today that the first concert was just about sold out. His Beethoven recordings for Harmonia Mundi are correctly highly regarded, and there he is blessed by a tremendous recording. It came as something of a surprise not to encounter that level of communication and understanding in these live performances. My colleague Geoffrey Newman heard Lewis in Canada around a month ago in this programme (review), so clearly he has been doing the rounds and the impression I get is that Lewis might have been fresher on that occasion.

The E major, Op. 109 began surprisingly loudly, as if Lewis had misjudged the acoustic, and in decidedly matter-of-fact fashion. The impression of standing at a remove from the score was continued throughout this sonata. And while one might point to some lovely moments – the second movement in particular, with its tremendous counterpoint and its beautifully together chords – it was the sense of forced expression in the finale that remained in the memory.

The A flat, Op. 110, fared better, but there was still the sense that Lewis was almost but not quite capturing the essence of each movement. The Allegro molto second part was somewhat cumbersome and he just missed the desolation of the Adagio ma non troppo. A bad pedal clearance prior to the Fuga hardly helped. Against this, there was a truly expressive sense of line later on in the sonata that seemed to indicate just what Lewis is capable of in this music.

Lewis gave only very little gaps between the sonatas, although he did leave the stage. This worked well, as one got to feel the trajectory of these works. The final C minor sonata had plenty of drama in its first movement, but the transport to Elysium that is the Arietta remained rather stuck in the platform at Bond Street station. The tempo was well judged, but instead of a natural unfolding the movement appeared unduly sectionalised. Missing the organic growth from one variation to the next is a shame, perhaps even a crime, and left the impression of a succession of beautiful moments that together failed to lift the listener to anywhere near the transcendent or magical.


Colin Clarke

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