For his piano recital in The Venue, Leeds College of Music, Paul Lewis chose to perform Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas – a splendid programme, illuminating aspects of the late Beethoven’s approach to the sonata form as well as presenting three highly individual yet to some extent related works.

Paul Lewis
Paul Lewis

That the selected sonatas were remarkable – Beethoven wrote them 1820–22, when he was already completely deaf – became apparent right from the start: The Piano Sonata in E major Op.109 did not open with grand gestures leading to a dramatic course of the music, as might have been expected, but rather with a movement of gentle character, with light floating figures shaping the surface of the music. Without a break, Lewis jumped into the fierce second movement. Was he alluding to the fact that all parts of the sonata are closely interwoven on a fundamental motivic level?

While Beethoven has always searched for new ways to extend the expressive and dramatic qualities of the sonata form, in his late piano sonatas he was inclined to use variations (as in Opp. 109 and 111) and fugues (as in op. 110) in the final movements. The set of variations in the third movement of Op.109 is based on a highly cantabile, almost "modest" theme of a delicate beauty; if not performed with an utmost expressivity and sensibility, it tends to appear quite simplistic, forfeiting its particular character. Although Lewis’ tone was smooth and well-articulated, his rendition of the third movement in particular seemed too straightforward, missing the calm and almost fragile tone in which he was about to render the “Arietta” theme later in the programme.

That, after the applause, Lewis did not wait long to carry on with the second piece of the evening, the Piano Sonata in A flat major Op.110, was no coincidence. With the G sharp of the last chord of Op.109 still echoing in our minds, overlapping with the predominant A flat in the opening of Op. 110 – G sharp and A flat being essentially the same note on a tempered piano – Lewis managed to suggest a certain connectedness of the two sonatas. In the first movement of Op.110, there was an outstretched lyrical atmosphere, even in the development section which, traditionally, is the space for struggles and the build-up of tension, and it was of all things the recapitulation in which the music broke out of A flat and surprisingly modulated into E major. This was not only a hint at the previous sonata but illustrated how Beethoven played with expectations regarding the form model by (inter)changing attributes of different form sections.

While in the second movement, Lewis played the Trio section somewhat uninspired and in an étude-like manner, the modulating transition to the third movement was finely carved out. In this peculiar piece, a recitative was followed by an Arioso dolente, a lamenting chant of the piano. The final movement, a fugue, was not as agitated as the fugue of the “Hammerklavier” Sonata, but of a rather calm character, delivered in a thoughtful, introspective manner by Lewis. At some point, the fugue was broken off by a second Arioso entry, loosening the strict separation of movements. Again, the transition back to the fugue was impressively done by Lewis. The subject of the fugue returned first inverted and a semitone lower, before at last, it appeared its original form and key, leading to a fulminant ending.

Lewis’ interpretation was most convincing in the second half of the evening when he performed the last of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas, the Piano Sonata in C minor Op.111. The two movements of the sonata are of opposed characters – the first being dramatic and vigorous, the second peaceful and rather quiet – yet they strangely form a unity, once again pointed out by Lewis by not pausing between its two movements. The second movement is built of variations on the so-called “Arietta” theme, the performance of which was my personal highlight of the concert: Lewis wonderfully put forth the delicate, peaceful and beautiful soundscape of this much discussed theme. It was one of these moments when the audience held their breath – which was all the more effective in the intimate atmosphere of The Venue at Leeds College of Music. In the following variations, Lewis succeeded in developing long melodic phrases and cultivating a delicate tone, while revealing the different, often radical sounds of Beethoven’s last piano sonata.

This recital is part of a series of six concerts, all dedicated to the quest for exploring the sonata from different angles. As a matter of fact, Paul Lewis himself is the artistic director and put that series into shape. Looking back on the concert, it is fair to conclude that the sonata form was already highly flexible and led to astonishing results as early as in the 1820s.