Paul Lewis Shows Fortitude in Completing His Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms Project

CanadaCanada Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms Project – Concert IV: Paul Lewis (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 3.3.2019. (GN)

Paul Lewis © Johan Jacobs

Haydn – Sonata No.3 in E minor Hob.XVI:34

Brahms – Three Intermezzi Op.117

Beethoven33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli Op.120

Well, he made it! Paul Lewis had suffered a neck/nerve injury that forced cancellation of his scheduled appearance at Carnegie Hall, and there was considerable trepidation as the pianist now embarked on this final concert of his Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms project. Everyone was prepared for the worst, especially with the forbidding Diabelli Variations beckoning at the end of the programme. But not to worry: the pianist’s fortitude carried him the distance and featured some very fine playing too. If there has been one thing invariant over the four concerts, it is the quality of Lewis’s Haydn, and his Sonata No.53 in E minor maintained the flow of insight. The Brahms Intermezzi Op.117 also seemed to capture the composer’s ruminative, poetic side with increased natural awareness. Although not the only way to perform the work, the pianist’s Diabelli Variations turned out to be an astute and cohesive exploration of telling variety and command.

The opening movement of Haydn’s E minor Sonata is marked Presto, but Lewis’s tempo was hardly that. Nonetheless, he did a fine job at exposing the architecture of this movement – reminding me of Alfred Brendel in the process – while defining its contrasts cunningly. I ultimately had few reservations about the tempo. The Adagio was spun out with an elegant fantasia-like feeling, particularly sensitive to the later minor key modulations, while the finale had a nice sense of coaxing wit and a redeeming underlying flow. Alertness figured strongly in Lewis’s previous Haydn; this traversal was on the more deliberative, thoughtful side.

While a professed objective of this set of concerts was to develop parallels between the late compositions of the three composers, I am not sure this conception served Brahms very well. In the first two concerts (review: review), I found Lewis’s treatment of the late Brahms pieces slightly too ardent and robust at places – more youthful and more like Beethoven – and not fully seated in the music’s lyrical flow and fragile musing. Fortunately, this performance of the three Intermezzi of Op.117 was as good as it gets: all the dreamy melancholy, intimacy and inner stillness were present, aided by a natural Brahmsian rubato. Very beautiful indeed.

Beethoven’s ‘33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli’ stands as one of the most commanding works of intellectual ingenuity and reach and, for some, the greatest set of variations ever written. Paul Lewis originally recorded it in 2011, and there has been no shortage of pianists wanting to take on its challenges recently (Igor Levit, Imogen Cooper, Filippo Gorini, Dame Mitsuko Uchida, Sir András Schiff). I am not sure that Lewis would wish much critical appraisal of his current effort, performed under such adversity. We were just grateful that he could finish the work.

Broadly speaking, it was a performance that sought to bring cohesion and shape to these heterogenous musical splinters, consistently operating with a human face and narrative. Sometimes I think an approach that concentrates directly on the work’s intellectual core, bringing out its iconoclasm, severity and lack of compromise, works better, but this softer approach was communicative in its own way. The opening variations were approached with a playful buoyancy (some might want them slower and gruffer) and, while the humour might have been drier and more eccentric, Lewis saw his way through the middle variations with clear direction – not the easiest task. Given the integrative focus of this project, there were plenty of historical references to Bach, Haydn and some of Beethoven’s middle period sonatas before descending to the transcendent feelings of the ‘Hammerklavier’ and Op.111 in the famous triad of closing variations. A mix of fluidity, colour and feeling seemed to be the desiderata. It was a formidable effort, even if one ultimately might be swayed by a profile of greater daring and jaggedness, and somewhat less evidence of human intervention.

Overall, the idea behind this series of four concerts was innovative: joining a stimulating group of Haydn sonatas to the profound late splinters from Beethoven’s and Brahms’ chopping blocks was quite revealing of the possible links between the composers. Typically, one would never hear these pieces together in a recital. The Haydn sonatas received uniformly excellent accounts, and Lewis’s Brahms on this occasion was splendid – the most expressively ‘seated’ of his current explorations. The sojourn through all Beethoven’s Bagatelles was fascinating, while the Diabelli Variations constitutes an exalted experience very much of its own. The only thing I remain agnostic on is the idea (implicit in this project) that the later Brahms and Beethoven can be seen to share attitudinal similarities. Congratulations to the pianist for achieving all of this with such unflagging inspiration and consistency!

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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