Paul Lewis, piano; Works by Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt and Schumann; Chan Centre. October 14, 2010

Paul Lewis, piano

Paul Lewis, piano

The cycle of Beethoven piano sonatas that Paul Lewis performed for the Vancouver Recital Society a few years ago left no doubt that he was a pianist of real stature.  How he was able to wed the angularity and power of Beethoven’s writing with his wit and lyricism, and produce such  thoughtful, detailed, yet consistently-spontaneous accounts of  these 32 different sonatas was remarkable.  Equally impressive, and especially for a pianist only in his thirties, was his awareness of, and commitment to,  the composer’s spirit and vision; like his teacher, Alfred Brendel, a discerning ‘seeker of musical truth.’  As part of the evolving friendship between the pianist and the VRS, Paul Lewis returned this year to play Beethoven’s Waldstein Sonata, and display his newer interests in Schumann, Mozart, and Liszt.

From the rhythmically-insistent opening bars of the Beethoven, one noticed how the right-hand figuration was also shaped to impart a lyrical feel to the work; this complex weaving of tight structure and yielding phrasing was used in a most communicative way throughout.  Dividends were realized as we approached the last movement, where there was great inward feeling and the keenest anticipation of what was coming next.  This was not a performance which aimed at power or drama as such; it gave great satisfaction precisely because all the variety in the work was given meaning and balance.

The same qualities informed the shorter pieces, Mozart’s Adagio, K.540 and Liszt’s Vallee d’Obermann.  Both had a structural awareness and inward concentration that were admirable.  For some, the Liszt might be too straitlaced; it was more analytical than full of bravura.

The Schumann Fantasia in C is one of the peaks of romantic piano writing. While it was written at a difficult time in the composer’s life, I have always thought of it as a very poetic, noble, and inspiring work rather than one where an all-consuming sadness dominates.  Paul Lewis has convinced me that this is a very sad work. 

The first movement contrasts headlong passion and tender fragility in such a strong way that one is immediately taken to a world of instability and fevered turmoil.  The march-like second movement often is given a positive, triumphal feeling; here the playing suggests more of a ‘hollow’ march; an emptiness and doubt lurk just behind all the rhythmic certitude.  In the pianist’s hands, the final movement is tragic outright.  Certainly, the themes of this last movement do have a wonderful ethereal flow suggesting a movement towards full emotional resolution and peace; ‘the triumph of the living spirit.’  However, by the most subtle tonal shading and rhythmic flexibility, the pianist always makes any motion forward to resolution fall back again to fragility and despair.  This goes on again and again as the movement progresses, like a noble military general injured in war always trying to get up to rejoin the battle, but always falling down again. The final arrival of the soft triplets of a Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata theme does not reverse anything.  Played in such a withdrawn, disembodied way, only the ultimate release from torture and pain is implied.  There is nothing left.   

This was a gripping and memorable performance.

© Geoffrey Newman 2010