Paul Lewis at His Best in Brahms and Liszt

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Brahms, and Liszt: Paul Lewis (piano). Royal Festival Hall, London, 11.5.2016. (MB)

Schubert – Piano Sonata no.9 in B major, D 575

Brahms – Four Ballades, op.10; Three Intermezzi, op.117

LisztAprès une lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi sonata

 I was not the only one to wonder whether Paul Lewis’s recital might have been better off at St John’s Smith Square (the South Bank’s ‘smaller’ hall, whilst the Queen Elizabeth Hall is being renovated) than in the Royal Festival Hall, somewhat cavernous for solo piano music at the best of times. As it was, a small army of dedicated coughers, especially active during quieter passages of Brahms, helped fill the hall.

Lewis’s approach to Schubert, especially in the outer movements of the B major Sonata, probably fared least well here, but it was not only a matter of the hall. The first movement received an unhurried yet broadly ‘Classical’ reading. Rhythmic insistence was welcome, especially given its generative capacity at the opening of the development, carried through into the recapitulation. However, the movement ultimately seemed a little disjointed. Surely Schubert should sing a little more. The second movement did sing more, benefiting from a stronger sense of line in a performance that was on the sober side, yet nevertheless compelling. On its own terms, moreover, it showed more ‘Romantic’ subjectivity. Likewise the scherzo, which had a winning lilt to it. By contrast, the finale, not unlike the first movement, remained somewhat earthbound; it was beautifully played yet rather circumspect, save for a few moments of apparent quirkiness that might have seemed more at home in Haydn or Beethoven.

The Brahms Ballades, op.10, I found more to my taste. The first struck a fine balance between severity and something a little more yielding. That contrast was not entirely to be identified with ‘Classical’ and ‘Romantic’ poles, but not entirely to be dissociated from it either. Contrast and continuity were likely apparent in a resolutely unsentimental reading of the second. Rhythms were keen and harmonically both generative and generated. The third Ballade sounded splendidly enigmatic; even at this early stage in Brahms’s career, there was a hint of Webern, perhaps, in the trio, of late Beethoven too, and also, I think, intriguingly, of Chopin’s scherzos. The Schumannesque inheritance of the fourth piece shone through, with some telling voicing and stronger hints of ‘late’ Brahmsian half-lights. There was Innigkeit, yes, but also some sonorities that would call into question crude opposition between the piano-writing of Brahms and Liszt.

The Three Intermezzi, op.117, opened the second half, the first sounding unusually bright of tone at its opening, its central section darkly contrasted. The proliferation – surely a more helpful term here than mere ‘ornamentation’ – surrounding the opening material upon its return sounded properly developmental. There was admirable clarity to the second piece, although I missed a stronger sense of those half-lights. The third opened in more mysterious fashion, drawing one in to listen. Its melancholic complexity was subtly yet climactically apparent.

Liszt’s Dante Sonata was given a welcome Classicism. It is not the only way to perform the work, but stress on motivic integrity and a lack of grandstanding ought to have won over a few sceptics (of whom there are still far too many). More than once, I thought of the approach to Liszt of Lewis’s teacher, Alfred Brendel. Sprung rhythms as familiar from the Schubert sonata and, to a lesser extent, from Brahms, fascinated in their new context, although there were times when I wished Lewis might yield, ‘Romantically’, a little more. That, however, is more a matter of taste (or lack thereof!) than anything else. No one could have doubted the integrity of the performance – nor of the work. The lovely little F-sharp major Klavierstück, S 192/4, recorded by Brendel, made for a rapt encore, Lewis’s greater tactility and his striking ability to hear this perfect miniature as if in a single phrase once again pointing towards Webern.

Mark Berry


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