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S & H Recital Review

Mozart, Adagio in B minor: Schumann, Kinderscenen, Op. 15: Schubert, Three Pieces, D946, Six German Dances D 820: Schoenberg, Six Little Piano Pieces, Op. 19: Liszt, Sonata in B minor, S. 178. Paul Lewis, Wigmore Hall, 9th December 2003 (ME)

Paul Lewis is one of a select group of artists who have a special relationship with the Wigmore Hall: he is everywhere these days, from Schwarzenberg to Sydney, but he has returned here no fewer than eighteen times during the past four seasons, always playing to packed houses. The phrase ‘A beautiful touch, a steady hand, clear and clean playing full of spirit and feeling…’ which was once used of Schubert himself, perfectly defines what Lewis offers: in the same mould as pianists such as Solomon and Kempf, there is no sense with him that this is ‘his’ Schubert or ‘his’ Liszt, since all is communicated in the spirit of the music itself, without histrionics or any overlay of excessive sentiment.

Mozart’s B minor Adagio is a solemn piece with which to begin a recital, and all praise to Lewis for doing it: no lollipops here, thank heavens, just intense seriousness and dedication, with the elegant rise and fall of the phrases so gracefully shaped, suggesting to he listener the essence of what we mean when we say ‘Mozart.’ Lewis brought out all the warmth and introspective qualities of this music without any striving after effect, and the final minor to major change was superbly achieved, the coda melting from hesitation into serenity.

When I previously heard him play the Kinderscenen under less formal circumstances, he apologized to those students upon whom he had pressed these pieces, since ‘I’ve only recently realized how fiendishly difficult they are.’ Would that certain other eminent instructors had displayed such humility – but let that pass. They are not, of course, for children at all, unless one thinks of the Schumanns as such, and despite the composer’s opinion that in playing them Clara would have to forget herself as a virtuoso, they present many challenges, notably their abrupt changes of mood, a deceptive simplicity which can so easily descend into banality in the wrong hands, and of course in our own time the familiarity of some of them. Lewis met every challenge, evoking the delicate hesitation of ‘Von fremden Ländern und Menschen,’ shaping the well loved ‘Träumerei’ with such fluent elegance that it seemed as if heard for the first time, and most of all giving more limpid, poetic tenderness to ‘Der Dichter spricht’ than I can ever remember.

One of the special features of Lewis’ art is, for me, the way in which he shapes and characterizes the piano music of Schumann and Schubert so as to bring out its closeness to Song: during Kinderscenen I was constantly reminded of the Myrthen Lieder, especially such phrases as ‘Mein guter Geist, mein bess’res ich’ from ‘Widmung’ and this quality was also evident in his wonderfully cantabile playing of Schubert’s Three Pieces of 1828. This music is so often played with the kind of self-indulgence more suited to Rachmaninov than Schubert, but here it was given an ideal elegance and rhythmic fluency.

After the interval, we were asked to refrain from applause until the end, an instruction readily accepted as resulting from the artist’s desire for a quiet pause after each piece: however, this was not the reasoning behind the request, this being a bold gesture worthy of Matthias Goerne in its innovative daring and power to make us hear well-known works in a new light, since all three pieces were given without a break, Schubert’s dances blending seamlessly into Schoenberg’s ‘little pieces’ which then melted into the Liszt. Brilliant! The links between these pieces are as clear as, say, those between Beethoven’s Gellert Lieder and Schubert’s Leichenfantasie, but it takes real individuality to demonstrate them so sharply in a recital. Schubert’s dances, as Graham Johnson wrote, are suffused with a sense of longing, and Lewis brought out that sense with exquisite poignancy, echoed in his restrained yet melancholy evocation of Schoenberg’s evanescent phrases. Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy was transcribed by Liszt the year before he wrote his B minor Sonata, and the influence of Schubert upon the later composer is clearly heard in the noble Andante and the richly coloured Lento assai of the B minor work. Turning into the tremendous drama of the Liszt after the lugubrious cadences of the Schoenberg without any pause, Lewis played with ferocious technical mastery, exactly judged drama and above all wonderful finesse: it is another special feature of his playing that one is never perturbed by the structure of such pieces, since he is so adept at delineating the rhythmic pattern of individual movements.

Paul Lewis has come a long way from his first Wigmore recitals, when friends and colleagues from his first teaching job used to pack the hall: nowadays most of them find it hard to get in to hear him, and that is not surprising, since this young man, still only in his early thirties, is the very epitome of everything that lovers of this music seek in a pianist – like his tutor Alfred Brendel, he is cerebral and self-effacing, yet he also evokes the poetic sensibility of Kempf and the magisterial quality of Schnabel. For his next Wigmore appearances he will be joined by the Leopold String Trio in enticing programmes of Schubert, Mozart and Schoenberg on December 27th, and Martinu and Schubert (‘The Trout’) for the ‘Coffee Concert’ on the 28th – highly recommended as a cure for any post-Christmas blues.

 

Melanie Eskenazi

 

 


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