Even in a season of stellar pianists performing in Melbourne, Paul Lewis (here for Musica Viva) was not to be missed. Although not the most flamboyant of performers the British pianist is always a welcome visitor, as his reception at the packed Melbourne Recital Centre showed.
Acknowledging the enthusiastic applause when he came on stage with a quiet smile, Lewis quickly settled at the piano and headed straight into the first work: Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.30 In E, Op.109. One of the last three sonatas, it was identified as such by its romantic sound. Technically this translated into the challenge of arpeggios and other techniques, Lewis’s quiet manner creating the illusion that the score was easy while his judicious pedaling allowed harmony to follow harmony without blurring. The pianist threw his whole body into the fortissimo which was quickly succeeded by a softer flow of music.
The second movement had emphatic chords in a prestissimo race with some scales, double octaves and a fast moving bass. It was indeed “songful” to begin, and a beautiful passage for the right hand had a graceful look and sound while even the slowish mezzo-piano section had a drama to it. Lewis’s virtuosic skills were put to the test with trills and a long quite polyphonic dramatic coda.
There was a surprisingly quiet ending – the first but not the last of the night. Later in the evening the pianist said he had sought out works that ended softly (and could have added: after a tumultuous journey).
The Four Ballades, Op.10 of Brahms began with “Edward” (and a sword dripping blood), the hymn like harmony and smooth progression of chords, then a series of questions and answers, with hands crossing, mirrored the poem whose horror is gradually revealed. The piano’s dramatic increase in intensity at the end is saved for the murderous Edward’s final confession.
Ballad No. 2 was sunnier and more musical, No.3 had almost frightening abrupt chords to begin and plenty of fire mixed with delicacy. Finally, the fourth rounded off these contrasts with a delicate waltz, and a flowing accompaniment to the right hand melody that had the piece subdued yet sonorous to end. Perfect Lewis fare. After interval the three Intermezzi Op.117 were similarly a study in contrasts, well realised by Lewis. Called by Brahms “lullabies to my sorrow”, they were a study in restraint as Lewis conveyed the sorrow that “ended in anguish” as he explained.
But the true test of Lewis’s understanding of Romantic sensibilities came with his rendition of the last Beethoven sonata, No.32 in C minor, Op.111.
The first thing to notice was the power and dexterity of the pianist’s hands as the drama unfolded, the next was the contrasting charm of the Ariette, slow and revealing Beethoven at his most lyrical. The melody shone through the fireworks that ensued thanks to Lewis’s calm and control … but although the Ariette was meant to be the final movement, the restless ending was so different as to constitute a third movement distinguished by its beautiful flowing chords.
Was it Beethoven or Lewis who wove the spell around an audience that hardly seemed to breathe in this work? Both, of course, with Lewis having guaranteed that all who had heard his masterly performance would hope to be there when next he came to Melbourne.