Tag Archives: Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

Perth Concert Hall

Just as Mitsuko Uchida remains the Mozart pianist of choice for many listeners, Paul Lewis has established himself as the go-to man for Schubert. His performances and recordings of the sonatas made his name as a young man, and now the mature musician has returned to them, bringing experience and, perhaps, the lessons of a lengthy excursion into the Beethoven canon, to bear on the later works in particular.

The pianist has said that the main difference between the works of those two composers is that Schubert sees no reason to find resolution. That is especially true of the first work in the second programme of his cycle of the sonatas at Perth, the sole Scottish dates of this two-year project.

The posthumously-published Sonata No 15 in C, D840, has only two completed movements, and appears to have been set aside while Schubert completed its successor, the 16th in A minor, D845, the work with which Lewis ended this recital.

Named ‘Reliquie’ in the false claim to have been the composer’s final work, the music that has come down to us benefitted from Lewis’s brisk work-in-progress approach as soon as he sat at the keyboard. Confident that Schubert’s melodic genius will work its magic, Lewis began in robust, probing fashion, with a noticeably weighty left hand in the climax to the first movement and swift passage into the Andante. The 6/8 rhythm of the slower music is an interrogation of the piano as a musical machine that was still a new and evolving instrument. As Lewis says, Schubert asks many questions of player and instrument, but sees no need to supply easy answers.

The D644 Sonata which followed is the work of young, hopeful Schubert, and Lewis brought a sparkle to the “little” A major that gloried in its comparative completeness, if not complexity. This is performative music, more like Mozart than Beethoven, with a musical narrative that seems redolent of the countryside, like the contemporary ‘Trout’ Piano Quintet. There was a liquid intensity to the river of notes, as the fingering suggests eddies and pools as well as rapids.

The A minor D845, which ended this programme, both provides some suggestions as to where the C major sonata may have been heading in its explorations of the possibilities of the piano, and begins the sequence of three late sonatas that many regard as the composer’s most profound work. Whether the music is really a picture of Schubert’s own troubled psyche or, more simply, mapping out a direction for piano writing for generations to come, it is a ferociously difficult work which Lewis dispatched with deceptive ease. The contrasting tempi required by the right and left hand are a huge challenge, but this pianist’s time-keeping was never less than rigorous to the score’s fluctuating demands.

Keith Bruce

Paul Lewis

Perth Concert Hall

It is not fantastical to think that when the designers of Perth Concert Hall – in all its structural, visual and acoustic detail – first envisaged the building at the start of the new millennium, they imagined it with a piano sitting in the centre of the stage.

Although the auditorium has proved itself highly adaptable, it is beyond argument one of the finest places in the country to hear a piano recital. So beginning a new series of concerts by well-known soloists, under the banner “Classical Stars”, with pianist Paul Lewis playing Schubert sonatas makes perfect sense. Even better, this is the start of a commitment by the musician to play all of them over the coming years, and Perth is the Scottish venue to hear that project.

On what was, by happy coincidence, Schubert’s birthday, Lewis began with a career-spanning taste of what that journey might have in store, from one of the composer’s earliest excursions into the form (albeit in a version revised later), via one from his most anguished period, to a sunnier – and much better known – late work. It was the same programme he played for BBC Radio 3 in London’s Wigmore Hall earlier in the month, and this was the performance of a man who has lived with – and in – these pieces and their narrative for a while.

In the E flat major D568 Sonata that was immediately clear in his organic phrasing of repeating phrases, full of subtle alterations in their sequence and, audibly, between performances. A very thoughtful Andante slow movement, unchanged by the composer when he returned to the work, was followed by a very sprightly Menuetto that was a long way from “strict time” in the dancing sense, and finished with what was almost a flamenco flourish.

In February 1823 Schubert had just been diagnosed with syphilis – a death sentence two centuries ago – and the A minor Sonata, D784, surely reflects his despair and anger. In its three movements, Lewis found the anguish and resignation at the work’s heart. Even more of a challenge, however, is the contradictory nature of the finale. Its pell-mell cascade of notes, with a glorious melody fighting through the fury to be heard, is writing on an epic scale for the instrument.

By comparison the character of D850 in D major, composed on a summer holiday two years later, is of a man more at peace. This is the sound of the fresh air and open country, even if the hiking is at an impressive pace. The Con moto second movement is not exactly bucolic, but the flowing stream it seems to depict is a picturesque waterway, and there is something of the fairground about the Scherzo that follows.

Lewis’s performance was all about the composition’s rhythmic playfulness, nowhere more so than in the concluding Rondo, with its clock-like pulse, and in his perfect phrasing of the charming coda.

Keith Bruce

Cumnock Tryst: Lewis/Osborne

Trinity Church, Cumnock

When a couple of ace pianists get together and sound indistinguishably as one, the outcome is pure magic. Not that we needed Saturday’s keynote recital at James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst Festival by Steven Osborne and Paul Lewis to discover that. Their recent Hyperion recording, French Duets, is already a testament to their unique symbiosis as duettists. Hearing the same music in the flesh, however, took us to another level.

Osborne and Lewis are serious-minded musicians, Lewis especially, whose brooding stage persona generally conveys an intellectual intensity void of whimsy or idle chit-chat. It fell to Osborne – more comfortable perhaps with audience repartee – to sweeten the load through introductory thoughts and anecdotes, and the odd jokey interchange with the unexpectedly mischievous Lewis.

All of which set a suitably relaxed context for music that variously sang sweetly, touched on the sensuous and exotic, bristled with biting irony, even evoked the subtlest perfumes. Both took it in turns to handle the upper part, not that it made much difference to the outcome. When it comes to music, Osborne and Lewis share the same intuitive sensitivity of touch, melodic shaping and rhythmic nuance.

Applying it to Fauré’s tuneful Dolly Suite they turned this favourite of fumbling amateurs into a masterclass in lyrical ingenuity. Simple on the surface, there are treasures within, melodies that defy expectation, inner thoughts that deserve to be heard just enough to make their presence felt. What a joy to hear these so effortlessly revealed and yet so meaningfully contained within the broadest frameworks.

Poulenc’s belligerent Sonata for Piano Duet signalled a sudden change in delivery, the emphasis now on terse detachment and pounding dissonance, yet mindful of the bittersweet charm that pervades its calmer moments, and balanced neatly by a later performance of Stravinsky’s Trois Pièces faciles, just as edgy and acerbic, but with leaner, sharper textures. 

It would hardly have been a representative French programme without Debussy and Ravel, and it was here that Osborne and Lewis really took our breaths away. The sense of mystery and potency of colour conveyed in Debussy’s Six Epigraphes antiques was spellbinding, the contrasting piquancy of the Petite Suite illuminating and jewel-like. Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite seemed the perfect finale, its fairy-tale imagery captured magnificently in a performance that summed up in one the previous triumphs of a great evening.  

Ken Walton 

Available to stream via the Festival website, www.thecumnocktryst.com, until 8 October

EAST NEUK: Lewis, Shibe/Baker

East Neuk Festival

Paul Lewis

Sean Shibe/Benjamin Baker

The live performances at a briefer East Neuk Festival – for a much-circumscribed audience capacity – may be over for the summer, but other aspects of it can be enjoyed online until August 1 via its website. Short films of very high quality sound and vision include performances by artists who were not part of the live events, like the Tallis Scholars and pianist Llyr Williams, as well as different projects by some of those who were, including violinist Benjamin Baker and guitarist Sean Shibe.

Those two combined forces at the Bowhouse on Saturday morning to play music by Arvo Part, Manuel de Falla and Bela Bartok in a recital that was far-removed from their individual film excursions into solo violin Bach and acoustic and electric guitar quartets.

There was an overlap in that Part’s Summa features in the films of Shibe’s guitar collective and his Fratres began the live concert, with the equally soundtrack-familiar Spiegel im Spiegel mirroring it (appropriately enough) at the end, when Baker was joined by his regular recital partner, Daniel Lebhardt.

Shibe, who had a solo spot playing Mompou from his forthcoming debut collection for the Pentatone label, was slightly the junior partner in the duos, if only because the stylistic switching required of the violinist in tackling the different composers was the more ear-catching. Baker was chill and precise in the minimalist music, with all that work on Bach with the Royal Conservatoire’s Head of Strings David Watkins doubtless bearing more modern fruit, and fruity and sassy in the Seven Spanish Songs and Romanian Dances.

He and Lebhardt also played the biggest work in the programme, the world premiere of Matthew Kaner’s Highland Scenes. If there were particularly Scottish references in the broad topography of Kaner’s demanding score, which had huge variation of tone, range and dynamics, they escaped me on first listen, but I’ll be keen to re-assess that impression when the recording is broadcast on BBC Radio 3.

Pianist Paul Lewis was the big name live attraction at the Bowhouse, with concerts on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon. Making his debut at the festival, the first programme was one that was a product of the pandemic – a single span of an hour and a quarter with only one brief pause for applause after the first work.

It was Mozart’s Sonata in A K331, on which the ringing tone of the Steinway hinted at what was to come, as did the clear impression from the opening bars that Lewis was as concerned with the arc of the whole work as its finer details, beautifully played though they were. That applause break was brief as Lewis sat down quickly, without leaving the stage, to enter the very different sound-world, and mindset, of Scriabin. The condensed expression of the Five Preludes the pianist treated as a preface to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, leaving no space between the last of those and the first Promenade.

This was as dynamic a Pictures as you are likely to hear, and if not to the taste of all, hugely exciting to my ears. Crucially, it at no point brought to mind the work’s later orchestration: this was pianism at full throttle. It was also, when it should be, very loud, the chords bouncing around the reverberant acoustic. The impression was of a musician exploiting the limitations of the venue with all his skills, stomping on the forte pedal of the concert grand like a man possessed. Importantly, though, no detail was lost, even in passages that were played faster than I had ever heard them.

After that, Sunday afternoon’s recital could only be a more sober affair, even if its biggest piece was Schubert’s Sonata in B, which is a bouncy imperious work, full of dances and marches. Mozart’s rather dark Adagio in B minor and five of Mendelssohn’s loveliest Songs Without Words, ending with the gorgeous hymn-like Opus 30 No 3, began the published programme, and Lewis added Schubert’s Allegretto in C Minor as an encore. The whole afternoon was a masterclass of the best piano writing.


Keith Bruce

RSNO / Lewis

RSNO Centre

Although on the face of it unlikely in the current circumstances, it is conceivable that Scotland’s national orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra synchronised online presentations so that, just a week after reuniting a full orchestra in Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, the RSNO chose to broadcast a chamber recital that was filmed six months ago on the same weekend that the SCO fielded its full band in Perth, under the baton of Joseph Swensen.

Or it may simply have been a coincidence that the bigger outfit seemed to be trying on the clothes the chamber orchestra has been wearing so successfully at the same time as it donned its grandest gear. Either way, this recital was very much in the fashion of the bulk of the SCO’s online offerings, and arguably slightly mis-sold in the suggestion that pianist Paul Lewis is more central to the programme than he is.

Nonetheless, this is a value-for-money concert, with three substantial pieces, two of them showcasing recently appointed principal clarinet Timothy Orpen, the third with Lewis as soloist, and a splendid miniature for principal oboe Adrian Wilson.

The latter is a world premiere and part of the orchestra’s Scotch Snaps strand. Composed by Michael J Murray, one of the Ayrshire composers mentored by Sir James MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst, it is an imagination of the interior musical world of a “silent disco” busker who is a presence in Glasgow City Centre. A highly original work, as beguiling as it is unusual, Wilson’s fluid articulation certainly seemed to suggest that is was a rewarding challenge to play. The interesting question was what had prompted the composer to make the oboe his instrument of choice?

Aaron Schorr is at the piano for the first work of the programme, Mozart’s Kegelstatt-Trio, with Tom Dunn completing the line-up. The focus is certainly on the clarinet, with the similar range of the viola in a supporting role, but the stringed instrument is buried in the sound-mix here.

The balance for Weber’s clarinet quintet is also less than ideal. Movements of this work are hugely popular clarinet party-pieces and Orpen plays beautifully, with lovely rounded tone and perfect phrasing, but the string quartet is too quiet, especially in string-led moments like the opening of the second movement Fantasia. Put that to one side, however, and the playful dynamics of the ensemble in the Menuetto, when the combination of instruments is at its most theatrical, is a delight.

Paul Lewis precedes his performance of a chamber version (two violins, viola, cello and bass) of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No12 K414 with what amounts to a caution against over-rehearsing with players of this calibre, and there is certainly a sense of the RSNO quintet – and indeed Lewis himself – being very relaxed and “at home”.

Lewis is superb, from the opening bars that sound so akin to the 40th Symphony, and particularly in the hymn-like central Andante. Although the balance is better (this piece was filmed and recorded a month after the others, with the BBC’s Andrew Trinick producing), one might still wish for a little more presence from the strings.
Keith Bruce 

Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk

RSNO / Gardner / Lewis

RSNO Centre, Glasgow

Imagine this RSNO digital concert as a priceless painting encased in a tasteful picture frame that enhances, but never overwhelms, the masterpiece within. The latter is Edvard Grieg’s timelessly popular Piano Concerto in A minor; the outer casement consists of the two orchestral suites formed from the incidental music to Ibsen’s Peer Gynt. What’s not to like?

Throw in the presence of British conductor Edward Gardner, whose current position as chief conductor of the Bergen Philharmonic gives him a direct link to the composer (Grieg filled that post from 1880-82) and a feel for the Norwegian spirit that courses through this music. And Paul Lewis, of course, a pianist with an intoxicating ability to temper rigorous intellectual capacity with alluring simplicity and affection. The entire combination, along with an RSNO in the suavest of shape, is as near perfection as you’d hope.

Neatly filmed and produced, and with unpretentiously informative spoken links from tubist John Whitener, violist Katherine Wren, and Gardner and Lewis themselves, this is also a medium which the RSNO is now well on top of. We’d all like to be back in a live situation, but there’s no denying the new skills that have been learnt through desperate measures, slickly on display here.

Gardner’s shaping of the two suites is masterly, poetically restrained, but engrained with a crystalline folkish dynamic that brings every fresh detail and sighing nuance to the fore. He opens with Peer Gynt Suite No 2, arrestingly dramatic to begin with, but then a subsequent cocktail of vying charms, from the heavily pastiched Arabian Dance (its opening flute duo weirdly reminiscent of Ronnie Hazelhurst’s theme tune to 1970s TV sitcom Some Mother’s Do Have Em!), to the sassy Peer Gynt’s Homecoming and calming simplicity of Solveig’s Song.

The more popular numbers – Morning Mood, Ase’s Death, Anitra’s Dance and In the Hall of the Mountain King – follow the concerto in Suite No 1, again lovingly shaped, the emphasis on richness of tone and unmannered suppleness. The shimmer of muted strings in Ase’s Death is sublime.

At the heart of this programme, though, is the clean-cut, effortless precision of Lewis’ concerto performance. He stops well short of proclaiming total detachment, allowing Grieg’s immortal themes to flow naturally from his disciplined fingers, avoiding temptation to sentimentalise, and knitting together the entire edifice – which too often invites misplaced overindulgence – in a riveting display of explosive control. 

Gardner supports without intrusion, but always with something to add to the mix, a counter-emphasis here, a loving whisper there. It’s that time of the year when the RSNO traditionally offers a St Valentine’s concert. Be sure and make a date with this one!
Ken Walton

Available to view via www.rsno.org.uk