Peerless playing from Paul Lewis: a music review by Fraser Beath McEwing

November 19, 2019 by Fraser Beath McEwing
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British pianist, Paul Lewis, filled his Sydney Recital Hall program with just two works last night: Schubert’s Sonata in G D894 and Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. No bonbons to be seen.

Paul Lewis

Lewis was a late bloomer into piano, having first studied cello because his modest school didn’t teach piano. Once he was introduced to the 88 keys he achieved mightily, leading to competition wins and recording contracts. He was also a student of Alfred Brendel.

Assuming that Paul Lewis can act if there is another movie planned on the life of Beethoven, he should get the lead role. His repertoire is not only Beethoven rich (ready for the soundtrack), he bears a striking resemblance to a 40-year-old Ludwig.

He opened his program with Schubert’s Sonata in G D894, composed in the second last year of Schubert’s life. This is a piece that he actually finished – unlike many others that he left as works in progress. As in many of Schubert’s piano works, there is always a sense of song in the subtext. The sonata comes in four movements moving from a dominating two-chord figure which characterises the lengthy first movement to a more subdued slow second movement with a few dramatic outbursts. The third movement, marked menuetto, has the most readily recognisable passages in the sonata and stamps it unmistakeably as Schubert. The final movement is lively but finishes neatly, rather than in a hell-raising climax.

From the first notes, Lewis established himself as a master of Schubert, never giving in to schmaltz or beating up a bravura storm, but putting the music and the composer’s intentions first. As such, he came across as a totally unselfish pianist, technically masterful, interpretively sensitive and always in control, particularly in the many torturous waves of repeated notes and chords throughout the work.

Only pianists with marathon ability tackle the Diabelli Variations or Bach’s Goldberg

Variations for that matter, because they both take close to an hour to play, offering no respite for performer or audience. Having said that, Beethoven’s 33 variations in C on a Waltz by Diabelli is worth the extended attention span because it contains some of Beethoven’s finest piano writing and is regarded by many musicologists as Beethoven’s least-known-best-written work.

Fraser Beath McEwing

The variations come with a story. Anton Diabelli was a prominent music publisher and lightweight composer in Beethoven’s era. He wrote a brief, unremarkable waltz and sent it to all the composers he could think of, (including Franz Liszt, then eight years old) asking each of them to write one variation. Beethoven (under his breath and in German) probably said, “I’ll show the bugger” and proceeded to knock out 33 variations between 1819 and 1823. There might have been more, were not for Diabelli waving the chequered flag. What Beethoven sent him was a masterpiece.

Unlike, say, Paganini’s famous theme that every composer and his dog has taken on for variations, the Diabelli waltz was so musically threadbare that it almost gave Beethoven a blank canvas. He proceeded to fill it with wit, romance, parody, march, grandeur, contemplation and some technical demands tougher than the Hammerklavier Sonata. Another one of the challenges of the variations is that the performer must be able to throw off one mood and instantly assume another – almost like a quick-change magician. Little wonder that this work is seldom performed in public, but is usually tackled in the safer environment of the recording studio.

If you judge audience pleasure by 50 minutes seeming like 15, then Lewis’s Diabelli was sensational. Again, with technical and intellectual mastery, he served up a 33-variation degustation, making a Beethoven feast to be remembered. There were many variations that cried out for more, only to be replaced by the next, where the enchantment began again.

Paul Lewis presented the final concert in the 2019 piano series and in my opinion, it was the best. We’ve heard flashier music and the nostalgic whining of the fortepiano, but none reached the height of Paul Lewis’s Schubert and Beethoven.

Fraser Beath McEwing is a pianist, commentator on classical music performance and is a founding member of The theme & Variations Foundation which assists talented young Australian pianists. His professional background is in journalism, editing and publishing. He is also the author of five novels and a Governor of the Sir Moses Montefiore Home. A body of his work can be found on www.frasersblography.com 

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