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Cheltenham Music Festival (5): Beethoven Piano Sonatas: in G major, Op. 79 (1809); in D major, Op. 20 “Pastoral” (1801); in B Flat major Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”(1817-18). Paul Lewis (piano) Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 13.07.2006 (JQ)


The young British pianist, Paul Lewis, has been acquiring a formidable reputation over the last few years. Already widely praised for his performances and recordings of Schubert’s piano sonatas, he’s now turned his attention to Beethoven and this year and next he is presenting the complete cycle of 32 piano sonatas in a series of concerts round the world and is also recording them. UK readers may have heard recently on BBC Radio 3 the four recitals that he gave not long ago at London’s Wigmore Hall. The remaining sonatas are to be given in four more Wigmore Hall recitals next year, I understand, and I hope that they will also be broadcast.

It was the fourth and last of the afore-mentioned Wigmore Hall programmes that Lewis brought to Cheltenham. The recital was clearly one of the Hot Tickets of the festival and a sell-out audience greeted him. His programme was shrewdly chosen and beautifully balanced. In the first half he gave the little Sonata in G major, Op. 79 and the Sonata in G major, Op. 28 ‘Pastoral’. After the interval there was just one work, the mighty Sonata in B flat major, Op. 106, the ‘Hammerklavier’.

As I said, the programme was beautifully balanced. The Op. 79 sonata consists of just three short movements. Lasting only about ten minutes, it made for a delightful aperitif on this occasion. The first movement, which is the longest of the three, is an appealing Presto alla tedesca. The music danced and rippled under Lewis’s fingers. The following Andante is short and wistful and sounds very close to Schubert. It was sensitively played here and I admired particularly the beautiful weighting of the chords at the very end. The finale is a gay rondo of which Lewis gave a good-humoured reading.

Having launched the recital auspiciously Lewis then treated us to a fine reading of the ‘Pastoral’ sonata. He brought a wide range of tone to the first movement and I admired very much the subtlety of his playing, which was full of light and shade. The second movement is an Andante, which was expertly controlled. It’s dominated by a smooth chorale-like melody over a staccato bass and there’s a central section that’s slightly cheeky in nature and which I much enjoyed here. Lewis was masterly in this movement. The teasing and percussive scherzo was dispatched in a vivacious manner and then the finale, a brilliant, bubbling rondo, was quite splendidly done.

For all the delights of the first half we were in different musical terrain after the interval. The ‘Hammerklavier’ is one of the Everests of the piano literature. In this work Beethoven wrote for the solo piano on an unprecedented, almost symphonic scale, extending hugely the boundaries of required pianistic virtuosity. It remains one of the supreme intellectual and physical challenges in the repertoire and it’s significant that I believe Alfred Brendel, a superb exponent of the work and Lewis’s erstwhile teacher, stopped playing the sonata in public a few years ago.

Lewis launched the huge opening allegro with epic sweep. The vitality of his playing brought out the heroic grandeur of this movement very well. He made the most of the many percussive accents that play such an important role in the music and while the climaxes were superbly delivered the moments of repose were equally well observed. I was especially struck by the tremendous energy that Lewis brought to the development section.

Inevitably energy was also well to the fore in the fiery scherzo. But this is but a brief movement before the profundities of the Adagio sostenuto. Lewis visibly composed himself for a short while before essaying this profound meditation and he was surely right to do so for the music now moves onto an entirely different, far deeper plane and one of the many intellectual challenges faced by the performer in this work is to adjust mentally from the vigour and drive that have characterised so much of the first two movements and to become contemplative instead. Even more of a challenge is for the pianist to make this adjustment of mindset with sufficient conviction as to take his audience with him. Lewis achieved this demanding transformation splendidly. Calmly and authoritatively he probed this profound music throughout its duration of some eighteen minutes. This was a tremendous feat of concentration as well as of pianistic skill and perhaps in this movement above all one realised why he has become so very highly regarded. I thought that his patient control and sustained concentration were mightily impressive.

Once again Lewis paused briefly before the finale, allowing his audience to gather its thoughts, just as he clearly needed to do. The first few minutes of the finale are deceptively simple, not really hinting at the enormous complexity of what is to come. Lewis conveyed the mainly quiet tension of these pages very well before plunging excitingly into the vast fugue. This music is not at all easy for the listener to grasp, presenting an intellectual challenge as great as anything in Bach’s keyboard music, to which this is probably Beethoven’s great tribute. This demanding movement could be described as “Bach to the power of three” – or possibly more than three. : Lewis played this movement powerfully, though without any histrionics, but he managed to maintain clarity of texture at all times – no mean feat. The brief quiet episode towards the end of the movement was a much-needed respite for everyone in the room. Then Lewis rebuilt the volume and the tension and brought the movement to a decisive conclusion. At the end I must confess that your correspondent cast aside the critic’s objectivity and joined several other members of the audience in cheering this tremendous display of pianism.

This was an absolutely outstanding recital in every respect and it thoroughly merited the warm ovation that it received. Paul Lewis is clearly a musician of great perception and one who is in complete sympathy with Beethoven’s music. Though the programme called for – and received – great technical virtuosity I was impressed with – and greatly welcomed – the complete absence of any platform histrionics. Paul Lewis simply came on to the stage and gave unaffected, deeply musical and very satisfying performances, which called for respect as well as admiration.


Surely this was one of the highlights of the 2006 Cheltenham Festival. I’ve heard a rumour that Paul Lewis will be back at next year’s festival with another of his Beethoven sonata programmes. If that happens my advice would be to book early!



John Quinn

 


 



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)