I can’t imagine that anybody needs further confirmation that Paul Lewis is a very fine pianist indeed. If they do, there was plenty of evidence for that in this Zankel Hall recital, a thoughtful, lucidly conceived programme of Bach-Busoni, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mussorgsky. The question is, beyond that, how fine? 

It was Beethoven with which Lewis really made his name, and it was Beethoven who took up much of the first half here. The real interest, though, came in the two chorale preludes that led directly into the two sonatas, and Lewis’s playing of both of these transcriptions pointed up the major (to be honest, sole) problem with the Beethoven that followed. A key to understanding the difference that transcribing Bach’s organ works for the piano makes lies in the nature of sound. When an organist plays “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”, each note can be stretched out forever, undying, until the next arrives. For a pianist, in this and in all music, there is a constant striving against – or at least an accommodation with – the inevitable attenuation of a note. It dies as soon as it is born. The result, even in Busoni’s fulsome arrangements, is that Bach’s preludes take on a more tenuous, uncertain, even hesitant feel. Lewis’ great strength here, beyond a profound attention to polyphony, was to maintain tension between the notes, to use that dissipation. “Now come, the heathen’s saviour”, decrees the chorale. Would He, asked Lewis’ searching bass line? Could He, asked the miserable middle lines? There was something existential to “Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ”, too, a battle between material and sentiment, a modernism of harmony that stared straight at the Liszt to come. 

Lewis’ Beethoven could not quite match up. Lewis has always had a tendency to classicize works, especially in fantasia-like pieces, to find structure in them and insist upon it. In the first of the Op. 27 sonatas – marked “quasi una fantasia” – this scaffolding worked well. It began with simple joys, already a resolution from the Bach that had preceded it (without applause), but a naïve one requiring further work. This was relaxed Beethoven, yet quite Schubertian too, in its innate sense of harmonic progress. There was incision to the scherzoesque second “movement”, but not quite snap. The slow section had a gorgeous poise, an immaculate voicing, while the fourth movement and ultimate return seemed ineffably right. The second, more famous of this pair was nice enough as well: forlorn in that magical opening, if perhaps a touch brusque in the closing bars; amiable in the little middle movement; again following a harmonic plan in the finale, not quite restrained in execution but not quite fiery either. And that was the problem. In each case, the anxiety, that tension from the Bach seeped out with the first strokes of the Beethoven. It lacked the final ounce of meaning that a Barenboim or a Pollini, let alone an Arrau or a Gilels, brings to this music. Don’t doubt that Lewis will find it too, in time.

I had no qualms whatsoever with the second half. It opened with a Liszt triptych that showed how truly great Lewis can be. Beethoven’s answers had been all too easy, but Liszt’s were far less clear, if there were answers to be found at all in this very late music. Schlaflos, Frage und Antwort was restless indeed, centreless and neurotic, its time breaking down through myriad pauses. Through clever pedalling there were ominous clashes to be found even in unison octaves in Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, its crashing dissonances later on rivalling late Mahler, perhaps beyond. And there was barely controlled anger in R. W.–Venezia, Liszt’s lament for his great friend, its fanfares hollow among slithering lines that recalled Tristan.

To move straight into Mussorgsky was to breathe relief at the return of the mundane, perhaps, in comparison, the banal. Not so, as it turned out, for these Pictures at an Exhibition proved thrilling. All the violence that had been missing from the Beethoven suddenly poured out in “Gnomus”, an indication of how far Lewis would go with his characterisations. Take the laden heaviness of “Bydło”, shaking with rage under the yoke, or the deep sadness of “Il vecchio castello”, or the inconceivable brightness of tone found for “The Marketplace at Limoges”. There was something at stake throughout, and if “The Great Gate of Kiev” initially underwhelmed – Mussorgsky’s fault, not Lewis’s – there was smoke to blow away, as Lewis later put it, by the end.

A single encore was enough, given the choice: a quivering, wise, and transporting account of the fourth of Liszt’s Klavierstücke (S. 192).