Paul Lewis’s Haydn-Brahms Project Takes a Step Forward

CanadaCanada Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms: Paul Lewis (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 13.5.2018. (GN)

Paul Lewis © Eric Manas
Paul Lewis © Eric Manas

Beethoven – Eleven Bagatelles Op.119
Haydn – Sonata No.59 in E flat major Hob.XVI:49; Sonata No.47 in B minor Hob.XVI:32
Brahms – Four Pieces for Piano Op.119

Paul Lewis’s first concert in this new series revealed strong insight into Haydn while allowing him to explore a unity between the late Beethoven Bagatelles Op.126 and the six Brahms pieces that comprise Op.118 (review). The format of this second concert was essentially the same: two Haydn sonatas, this time placed between the Beethoven Bagatelles Op.119 and the Brahms piano pieces of the same opus number. Yet the concert had a slightly different feel to it. The initial Beethoven pieces were smaller in scale, the playing often emphasized thoughtful refinement, and the unaffected purity of Lewis’s pianism and fineness of detailing in Beethoven and Haydn made this second outing special. The Beethoven pieces now seemed more clearly linked to Haydn. The latter emerged as the most finished of the pianist’s exploits, and this recital effectively celebrated the April release of his new CD for Harmonia Mundi featuring the four Haydn sonatas performed in the two concerts.

Lewis’s scale for Beethoven’s Bagatelles Op.126 might have been on the larger side in the previous concert, but those pieces can take more adornment and dramatic weight than the eleven slivers of construction that comprise Op.119. His scale was perfect for the latter, always working towards a transparent delineation of structure without a trace of inflation. There is lovely variety in these miniatures, some playful, some suggesting a simple ‘song without words’, while others move to stranger, more elliptical expression and reveal a drama and abruptness characteristic of the composer’s final days. Lewis found simplicity and line through the pieces, but he was also successful in exposing the terse, enigmatic quality of the writing when needed.

Lewis’s performances of the two Haydn sonatas in the first concert were most impressive – alert, discerning, yet always aware of the spontaneous joy in the composer’s postures. Perhaps there was something of a big-toned feel to the playing at points, which arguably fit Sonata No.60 as a grande sonata. The readings of Sonatas Nos. 59 and 47 at this concert seemed more intimate and thoughtful, concerned with exposing the formal building blocks of the works and, possibly subconsciously, perpetuating the spirit of the opening Bagatelles. Such attributes were conspicuous at the opening of the lovely No.59, where Lewis paid great attention to the articulation of the germinal motives and the logic of the ongoing key modulations. An evident love of the composer’s counterpoint and defining four-note blocks fit in as well, mingling with the joy of the movement’s motion and its wonderful slices of humour. But there was always patience and reserve in this playing – and something personal too. Great care in phrasing distinguished the beginning of the Andante, eventually opening out to a lovely breadth, very sensitive to changes in mood. The capricious playfulness and bursts of motion in the finale could not help but produce a joyous sense of freedom by the end. This performance moved in many directions but was consistently carried by the fineness of Lewis’s articulation and detailing, presenting challenges in the work that drew one into the pianist’s personal world.

The same care in articulation was notable in Sonata No.47, very concerned with getting its harpsichord-based phrases precisely in place in the opening Allegro. There was a formal beauty exposed here, yet one could not fail to be enthralled by the glimmers of delight it embodied. The angularity in the writing also did not go unnoticed, an interesting contrast with the moments of dreaminess that marked the subsequent movement. The presto finale had a lovely overall balance amidst its whirlwind gyrations.

These Haydn traversals were most distinguished and must be placed among the best accounts currently before us. Alfred Brendel, Lewis’s teacher, also recorded these four sonatas and, while Brendel may be slightly less personal, there is a ‘knowing’ quality to his readings that still make them more mature and complete. This is not surprising: many would regard Brendel’s Haydn as the finest ever recorded. On the other hand, Lewis’s more personal treatments seemed as penetrating as Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s more ardent ones, and it is interesting that some of Lewis’s coaxing detail and structural grasp suggested comparison with the interpretations of a younger Sir András Schiff. I preferred the pianist’s more fine-toned treatment of the two Haydn sonatas at this concert to the somewhat richer delineations of the first concert. Nonetheless, this may be only a product of the concert format – the opening Beethoven projected a heavier tone in the first concert than the second – and no reviewer of the new CD has so far picked up any differences.

So, finally, on to Lewis’s Brahms, refreshing in its way, but it seems to be the least finished part of the enterprise. The first concert aimed to bring Brahms and Beethoven closer together, so a tighter, more youthful treatment of the Op.118 pieces emerged, having fine ardour and transparent detail but not giving as much weight to their tender, ruminative qualities. Perhaps I hold these late Brahms pieces in too much reverence, but the Op.119 interpretations also seemed too confident and straightforward to fully inhabit a late Brahms emotional fabric. They did not really breathe with a lyrical/ rhapsodic reach or quite capture the sense of release from ongoing struggle. Maybe taking the ‘old man’ out of these works is a blessing, but the tenacity and energy of the playing seemed to fit the Piano Concertos or the Sonatas better. The opening Intermezzo received beautifully quiet playing, but it would be difficult to say that it was fully seated in the searching vulnerability of Brahms’ world. No.2 seemed almost rigorous, tight and short-phrased – more like Beethoven – with less rhapsodic motion, whim and elevation of phrase. No.3 was particularly insistent and angular, while the strong energy of the concluding Rhapsody built to a true tour-de-force, quite cataclysmic. A stunning way to end an engrossing concert but, when all is said and done, it is the Haydn that left the mark. The Brahms is a useful experiment so far but needs to find a more natural rhapsodic fluidity and wistfulness.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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