Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Monday (no, Tuesday) Musical Offering (no, review)

We didn’t go to Berkeley just to look at amusing restaurant signage; we went to see the young British pianist Paul Lewis in a recital.

The way it seems to happen is like this: a young pianist emerges, bursting with promise. He or she wins a competition or two, or attracts the mentorship of a universally respected elder, or releases a breathlessly-reviewed CD. Then, there’s a year or so of making concert appearances. A very few go on to super-stardom (whether earned—like Leif Ove Andsnes—or not—like Lang Lang). Most don’t quite live up to the breathless hype, but do establish themselves as very respectable figures. Some, you just wonder whatever happened to them (Dmitri Sgouros, anyone?). So I always wonder what I’m going to get when I go to such a recital.

Paul Lewis is youngish, and has released a critically-loved complete set of the Beethoven Piano Sonatas. He’s studied with no less than Alfred Brendel, who famously doesn’t take many students. And now, he’s on tour, and (based on an impressive recording of Beethoven I heard on the radio, and a nice recording of some Schubert Sonatas) I wanted to see if he was all that. He is—as far as I can tell, which is not very far.

The program on Sunday included two Schubert Sonatas (a minor and D major) and the three piano pieces, from just before Schubert’s death. There is no doubt that this is well within Lewis’ comfort zone, and he played everything beautifully. Schubert is sometimes portrayed as an heir to Beethoven’s tradition, but the spirit behind the Schubert piano sonatas is (to me, at least) fundamentally different from the spirit behind the Beethoven sonatas. Beethoven’s works (with the exception of the “Hammerklavier”) strike me as being intensely personal chamber music—very much solo piano pieces, unimaginable recast as quartets or symphonies. Schubert, however, was writing symphonic works that happened to be playable on a piano. The music is no less touching or profound, but it is less personal. That sounds bad, but I could just as honestly say that it is “more pure”.

Lewis handles the technical and aesthetic demands of this music very well. He presented the orchestral effects convincingly: with too much clarity, they become annoying detail, and with too much distance, they lose their form. I was impressed by his ability to minutely control the volume of his accompaniments; the ability to shape these informed every phrase. I could readily hear these pieces in their symphonic form. It is easy for these pieces to sound much too long (for example, when I play them), but Lewis’ command of the architecture of these pieces made them seem all-to brief.

I am most familiar with the Three Piano Pieces, having played them myself. These are aptly named; they are less symphonic, more personal than the Sonatas. Knowing that a piece was among the last things that a composer wrote invariably makes you think differently about it—it must be especially poignant and elegiac. However, the Piano Pieces are especially poignant and elegiac because Schubert was on form when he wrote them. Lewis played them with personality (though perhaps slightly less than is possible, within the bounds of good taste).

Overall, I was rather liked Lewis’ playing. His subtlety of shading was very pleasing. Although the nature of the Sonatas is symphonic, he played with a pleasing elasticity of tempo that would be impossible but for the best orchestras. He did not have a hugely powerful sound, but it was certainly good for Hertz Hall. There was some imprecision in the release of the damper pedal, but this was probably more the fault of the technician than the pianist. The lasting memory is of Schubert, played with consummate musicianship.

Note that the memory is not of brilliant pianism, nor is it of a forceful personality. The program—and all I know of Lewis—is narrowly constrained to Vienna, between 1785 and 1830. Though there is absorbing depth enough in this repertoire, there is much more to pianism than the Viennese classics. Can he play Scarlatti? Bach? Schumann? Chopin? Rachmaninoff? Shostakovich? Lewis has recorded a disc of Liszt, and in this, he may be following his teacher Brendel. So, I don’t know if Paul Lewis is the next great pianist, or even the next Alfred Brendel (whose repertoire went from Bach to Schoenberg, though he’s most famous for those Viennese classics and Liszt). He sure can play Schubert, though.

(I did get his autograph, and an admonition.)

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