Coupling Busoni's arrangements of Bach's chorale preludes with Beethoven's quasi una fantasia sonatas, Op.27 and using some late Liszt to introduce Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, Paul Lewis's programme ranged from inward contemplation to thrilling drama. Despite his elegant lyricism and nuanced readings, the recital was slightly marred by some surprising technical flaws.

Paul Lewis © Jack Liebeck
Paul Lewis
© Jack Liebeck

Busoni's arrangements of Bach are streamlined and graceful, yet maintain the immense scale of their original medium. They illuminated the vastness of Beethoven's formal experiments while shedding light on their more delicate moments. In both chorale preludes, Lewis maintained a sense of refinement and grandeur, especially suiting the French overture resonances of “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland”. The wistful melancholy of this prelude was immediately followed by the warmth and spaciousness of Beethoven's Piano Sonata no. 13 in E flat major. Lewis's special skill is his poetic ability to change the mood in an instant without disrupting the musical flow, allowing him to explore the light and shade of Beethoven's writing and lending it a wonderful sense of unfolding in performance. Although his legato meant that the contrasts in the C minor scherzo were smoothed over, it provided movement and direction to hypnotic effect. After the reflective interlude of the Adagio, Lewis unleashed a joyful and exuberant finale.

The sense of restrained despair in “Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ” established the mood of contemplation which characterised Lewis' “Moonlight” Sonata. His attention to subtleties of line and his use of rubato lent the performance a sense of expansiveness (particularly in the greatly lengthened cadences of the Allegretto). This sonata felt slightly less polished, with a few pianistic flaws creeping in; the passagework in the Presto finale felt on the edge of control, and the purity of the right hand sound sometimes tipped over into the brittle.

Three of Liszt's late piano pieces opened the second half. Concentrated bursts of brooding intensity, they are characterized by a sense of introspection and foreboding which Lewis' performance captured. Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort began with agitated yearning, barely resolved by the consolatory conclusion, while the panicked accelerandos of Unstern! - Sinistre - Disastro eventually led to an ambivalent end (with the delicate veiled chorale in the quasi organo section a special moment). The gravitas of R.W. - Venezia initially felt a bit laboured, but lent the central fanfare grandeur.

The Liszt led straight into Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. Lewis embraced the dramatic potential of each tableau. “Il vecchio castello” was lingering and wistful, “Catacombs” sombre and chilling (although brightened by a radiant end). “Gnomus” was especially successful, with Lewis's manipulation of tempo conjuring a sense of malevolent humour. He seemed most comfortable with the bolder tableaux, with a formidable “Bydlo” and thundering octaves in “The Great Gate of Kiev”. For the most part, Lewis favoured a full sound over power, lending the work a sense of stateliness. Again, the performance wasn't technically perfect. Lewis had a propensity to leave his foot a bit too long on the pedal, and accuracy was sometimes sacrificed in order to thrill (particularly in “Baba-Yaga”). His focus on lyricism meant that he sometimes missed the humour of the lighter-hearted movements; the “Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks” was sprightly and delicate, but he failed to convey the carefree charm of “Tuileries” (despite some wonderful pearly runs). Although his interpretation favoured the darker side of Mussorgsky's suite, Lewis'performance was colourful and characterful.

An encore of a Klavierstück by Liszt brought the evening to an end with a brief reverie, once again allowing Lewis to display his lyrical beauty and attention to subtle detail. I just couldn't help wishing that he had brought the same finesse to a few of the more exuberant passages of the recital.