There was an air of expectancy in the National Concert Hall for last night’s concert. Paul Lewis, celebrated for his interpretation of Beethoven, was performing the last the three piano sonatas. In other hands, this might have been an overly ambitious task but with the fine pianism and lofty vision of this multi-award winning pianist, it was nothing short of the hallowed experience it promised to be.

Paul Lewis © Ingpen Williams
Paul Lewis
© Ingpen Williams

Of course, there is a large degree of daring in such programming, each sonata making profound demands both technically and musically on the pianist. They showcase the characteristics of Beethoven’s late style: the soul-searching anguish of the harsh dissonances, the sublime slow movements, the complex fugal writing. On a more mundane level, there is no denying the comparative brevity of these last three sonatas. With a little over an hour of playing in total, last night’s concert was finished all too soon.

From the opening notes of Op.109 I was struck by two things: firstly, the deep, unique, searching tone which Lewis elicited from the Steinway and, secondly, the sensitive shaping of each phrase. The sforzando C major chords came as an even greater surprise with a lurking ferocity in its attack before melting innocently back into the home key. Again in the second movement, Lewis captured all the original shock of the opening. Despite the familiarity of all these works, I found myself listening to these sonatas with fresh ears, rediscovering their original impact. Here Lewis’ steely control managed to control the bubbling excitement of this fiery movement. The touching melody of the finale sang out with all the refinement and polish of a mezzo-soprano. There was a delightful moment of tension as the Neapolitan chord gave way to the dominant while the individual fugal lines shone out limpidly over the busy accompaniment. Lewis kept himself clearly focused on the sweep and trajectory of the music of these variations, so that it was with a sense of spiritual homecoming that we listened to the restatement of the main theme at the end in its utter simplicity.

A momentary weakness in projection at the start of sonata no. 31 in A flat Op.110 was quickly forgotten as we were carried off on a gentle sea of undulating arpeggios before the melody soared upwards with the left hand trilling continuously in the bass. There was an earthiness to the sound as it passed through the key of E major that was thoroughly Beethovenian. The second movement Allegro molto was noticeably slower than other performers take it, though this ponderous quality was convincing for these mature sonatas. There might have been other reasons though for the slower tempo than originally thought as the occasional fluff showed. In the third movement fugue, the middle voice was superbly etched against the other parts. There was so many moments to savour here; the sorrowful G minor moment coming as if from nowhere; the repetitions of the G major chords growing inexorably; while the stretto effect meant that the melody was floating on a flood of turbulent semiquavers. Lewis seemed to relish the angst of the harsh dissonance of A flat against the G before the triumphant resolution of the tonic swept all the tension away.

Post interval, Lewis launched himself fearlessly into the daunting attack of the opening of Beethoven’s last sonata Op.111. Here Lewis demonstrated terrific bravura in the notoriously difficult contrapuntal sections of this movement. The sforzandi snarled with rage before subsiding into a muttering sotto voce at the conclusion of this movement. The second movement’s sublime melody is perfect in its simplicity and purity of expression, a melody which seems to transcend time, emotions and words until it reaches the stillness of eternity. And yet how hard to capture its perfection. For me, this was the highlight of the concert: it was a joy to witness the simplicity with which Lewis played the opening of this movement. It was as if the music emanated from the piano and spoke directly to the heart with the pianist as a mere conduit. The juxtaposition of the C major and A minor informs the whole movement, and Lewis played the latter with a desolate quality before melting back into the dominant. The music grows ever more rhythmically complex before exploding into the zany rhythms of the jazz variation with its offbeat accents and ludicrous time signatures. The trills at the end with the melody emerging from the middle voice were nothing short of magical. We were indeed truly blessed to have witnessed such a magnificent interpretation of Beethoven’s last piano sonatas.