Paul Lewis split his hour-long recital (streamed as part of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra’s BSO@Home concert series) between two major works with little in common. As expected, he brought to both Mozart and Mussorgsky a personal perspective, drawing attention to those passages that are harbingers of later musical developments. Mozart’s second movement Trio section pointed to Schubert while many of Mussorgsky’s tableaux seemed to anticipate the music of the early 20th century.

Paul Lewis in rehearsal
© Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra

The Andante grazioso, the first movement of Mozart’s Piano Sonata no. 11 in A major, K331, is an atypical theme with variations. Lewis approached the music with serenity and reserve, neither treating it as a piece of fragile china nor exaggerating the drama. The only bars where his playing sounded more lyrical were those of the singular minor-key excursion. He played the six variations as A-B-B structures, avoiding the repeats of their first segments. His articulation was overall marvellous with such beautiful moments as the two- and-three-semiquaver combinations in the first variation or the elegant right-hand octaves in the third one. The well-known “Rondo alla Turca” is a good example for anyone asking why Artur Schnabel considered Mozart’s piano sonatas “too easy for children and too difficult for artists”. In Lewis’ rendition, the humour and the march-like qualities seemed to be de-emphasised, while the music did not avoid a sense of melancholy, prevalent as well in the preceding Trio.

Listening to Lewis’ interpretation of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition was a journey into a world full of nuances. Like a painter of grisailles, he was able to suggest, via dynamic and tonal details, the full gamut of colors, letting the listeners’ minds (certainly already imbued with Ravellian explosive imagery) to fill in the rest. We are not exactly sure which of Viktor Hartmann’s drawings and watercolours inspired Mussorgsky, but his art was the epitome of realism. On the other hand, the composer’s imagery is many a time otherworldly: unhatched eggs are dancing; spirits wander through the catacombs; the massive Kiev Gate floats above the ground. Lewis captured well the music’s ambiguity. There was an aura of mystery in The Gnome’s tortuous moves. The Old Castle seemed at times surrounded by mist. As in the original folk tales, the forest-bound, enigmatic Baba Yaga could be a helpful character, not just a villain. At the same time, every version of the Promenade was differently chiseled, capturing the mood changes of a visitor passing by the artworks. Where the Promenade cesurae were missing, transitions – from the capriccioso, proto-Debussian Tuilleries to the description of a massive ox-cart in Bydło and from the marketplace chatter in Limoges to the dissonant and menacing accords that start Catacombs – were clearly delineated, but never extreme. In a score which is often used as a vehicle to display the pianist’s virtuosity, there was a total lack of grandiloquence. Indeed, Lewis playing had the delicacy of a watercolour, its contours clearly drawn out, but never heavily defined.

Lewis provided an interesting and illuminating coda to his recital. For an encore, he played Scriabin’s Five Preludes, Op.74, music that seemed full of Mussorgsky-like echoes. In his hands, these miniatures sounded in turn melancholic, dissonant, rebellious, tentative. It is a pity they are so rarely played as a group.

This performance was reviewed from the BSO@Home video stream