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Seen and Heard UK Concert

Ludwig van Beethoven:
Piano Sonatas: in E major, Op. 109 (1820); in A flat major, Op. 110 (1821); in C minor Op. 111 (1821-22). Paul Lewis (piano) Pittville Pump Room, Cheltenham, 10.07.2007 (JQ)

For the last two years Paul Lewis has been touring the world, cumulatively performing the complete cycle of 32 Beethoven piano sonatas. Almost a year ago to the day his recital of three contrasting sonatas, including the daunting "Hammerklavier" sonata, was one of the highlights of the 2006 Cheltenham Festival review

As the end of his Beethoven odyssey approached he returned to Cheltenham with a hugely demanding – and hugely rewarding - programme that took in Beethoven’s last three essays in the genre. As we were reminded in the programme note, the period of composition of these three masterpieces coincided with part of the time that Beethoven was occupied with the composition of the Missa Solemnis. So, contemporaneously Beethoven was pushing back significantly not just the boundaries of vocal music but of piano music also.

Happily, in Paul Lewis we had a pianist fully equipped to surmount all the many technical and intellectual challenges of this music. In the opening movement of Op. 109 I admired the strength of his left hand, but equally noteworthy were some delicate passages of figuration in the right hand. In the prestissimo scherzo there was abundant rhythmic drive, which resulted in very exciting music making. The finale is a theme and variations. The theme itself was unfolded with a noble cantabile after which Lewis explored the contrasts in the variations most skilfully. He built the variations to a powerful climax before allowing the music to subside calmly and lyrically into the reprise of the theme. He brought the sonata to a rapt close, and the several seconds of silence before the applause broke out spoke volumes for the mood of concentration which he’d induced his audience to share with him.

At the start of Op. 110 I felt that Lewis conveyed the rhetoric very well and without any exaggerated effect. The allegro molto scherzo benefited from energetic propulsion of the rhythms and crisp, clean articulation of the finger work. However, it was in the finale that he surpassed himself. There was an almost improvisatory feel to the introduction, which generated a real feeling of suspense. Then the arioso began quietly, sounding almost Bachian. The first fuga was marvellously purposeful; Lewis built it splendidly. After this the slower section was suitably calm but the succession of crescendo chords that end this section and lead to the second fuga were played with an impressive sonority. The ending of the movement was delivered with great power, causing me to reflect that in the early 1820s music such as this must have strained the capabilities of the instruments of the day almost to breaking point.

To end we heard a magnificent reading of Op. 111.The rhetoric of the maestoso opening was commanding and Lewis then realised the often turbulent allegro superbly. His playing contained, in equal measure, power, energy and authority; he was absolutely on top of this music. At the end of my notes about this movement I wrote one word: "Dynamism!" I think that was an appropriate summary.

Although it’s not marked in my copy of the score, Lewis started the second, concluding movement with no perceptible pause – a most effective touch. On the surface the music is calm at the start of this movement but there’s plenty of tension under the surface,and Lewis brought this out very effectively. The variations were played with great control and imagination. Lewis succeeded in presenting them as a coherent and logical whole, rather than as a series of connected episodes. Indeed, the whole of this extended and complex movement came across as one single span. His playing of the last few bars, leading to the quiet, dignified end, was very satisfying, effectively a musical QED. As at the end of Op. 109, the audience was still for several seconds as the music died away, almost as if no one dared to break the thoughtful silence, and for me that was an even greater compliment to his pianism than the cheers and enthusiastic applause that then broke out. In fact the ovation felt like a collective release on the part of the audience.

This was a splendid recital, one that was deeply satisfying both in terms of the pianism and the intellectual grip that Paul Lewis displayed. Everything he did sounded just right. If he’s this good in Beethoven at this relatively early stage in his career one wonders what revelations he’ll have for his audiences in, say, twenty years’ time. On this evidence it’s quite obvious that the rave reviews that Lewis seems to garner wherever he plays are amply justified. This listener is only too happy to add one more to the list. Bravo!


John Quinn




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