Riding on the crest of a wave is familiar territory for Paul Lewis. His latest exploration of Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, however, saw him diving beneath the surface, seeking new connections between these three great superpowers. On this occasion, Beethoven and Brahms didn’t provide the more expansive pieces in the programme, Lewis choosing instead to concentrate on the succinct nature of their later mature styles, so the meaty centre was left to Haydn. But, in typical Lewis fashion, it was intelligent programming, each piece providing deceptively but equally rich content and complementary stylistic contrasts.

Paul Lewis © Jack Liebeck
Paul Lewis
© Jack Liebeck

Lewis is one of the finest interpreters of Beethoven around, but it is only more recently that he has entered into a detailed exploration of Brahms and Haydn. Combining the three, however, created some meaningful links between them, such as in Beethoven’s 11 Bagatelles, Op.119, which shared the quirky wit of Haydn but looked forward to the romanticism of Brahms. Lewis brought out every twist and turn of these brief but remarkable pieces, showing that, rather than being mere trifles, they had much more richness and variety of content than their dimensions suggested. He opened with care and dignity in Bagatelle no. 1, the longest of the set at just two and a half minutes (the shortest, incidentally, being no. 10, lasting an audacious ten seconds!), while peppering others with charm and cheek. He produced wonderful legato in the Andante movements, and throughout he balanced delicacy with granite force.

The frivolous Beethoven led neatly into a similarly styled opening to Haydn’s ebullient Piano Sonata in E flat major, Hob XVI/49. Lewis was as intricate and articulate as it was possible to be, with only the slightest hint of the methodical, creating a lovingly shaped slow movement full of affection and longing, and a skittishly light and airy Finale. But the real sell for me was the subtlety of his transitions, using just the right amount of hold between phrases, no over-shaping, and with excellent use of Haydn’s trademark pauses.

After the interval, there was a change of mood with Haydn’s darker, more sombre Piano Sonata in B minor, Hob XVI/32, Lewis capitalising impressively on its curiously Baroque-style precision and poignancy while also foreshadowing the emotional expression of the Romantic era to come. Lewis mixed superbly contrasts of touch, and created wonderful definition of lines through all the figurations, especially in the Allegro moderato. The gentle Menuet was smooth and sensitive, with an unsettlingly restless central episode, followed abruptly by Lewis’ agitated and steely Finale, showing uncompromising dexterity delivered with brilliance at an almost suicidal pace.

Remaining in the key of B minor, Lewis then presented Brahms’ last work for solo piano, his Four Pieces, Op.119. As with Beethoven’s Bagatelles, Lewis focused on the composer’s desire to condense larger-scale narratives into succinct, more intense expressions, with an economy and conciseness that Lewis made quite compelling. A wistfully pensive and harmonically adventurous opening gave a feeling of ambiguous yearning, which became more grounded in the graceful nostalgia and reflection of the second Intermezzo. Lewis wove the rhythmic tricks and uneven phrase lengths of the C major Intermezzo skilfully into a continuously flowing set of waves, leading into a thunderous and triumphant Rhapsody to close the set, but ending under dark ominous clouds.

With his deep concentration, sheer musicality and welcome absence of unshowy gestures, Lewis seems to have this uncanny knack of making you feel that he is letting you into a secret. Based on these performances, which also included a refreshing encore of Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor, D915, these are secrets that simply have to be leaked.

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