A recital programme entirely made up of the music of Beethoven and Brahms suggests a seriousness of purpose and promises a degree of intellectual as well as sensuous pleasure. The British pianist Paul Lewis, on the first Sydney date of his Australian tour, offered two of Beethoven’s late sonatas separated by two groups of miniatures by Brahms. Lewis mostly rose to the challenges of repertoire which, to adopt Artur Schnabel’s famous bon mot, is better than it can ever be played.

Paul Lewis © Jack Liebeck
Paul Lewis
© Jack Liebeck

The pianist’s treatment of the first work on the programme, the Piano Sonata in E major, Op.109, was competent but lacked that extra quality so hard to define but which is unmistakable if present. The first movement juxtaposes a lively, lilting main theme with slower, more improvisational passages, which can pose problems in terms of unity. Lewis erred on the side of caution here, keeping the slower passages somewhat in check and refusing to indulge in their more fantastical aspects.

At his hands, the second movement took on a hectic quality that sounded almost Schumann-like, although the tone was a little inflexible at the beginning. The theme-and-variation third movement was taken at a flowing but flexible tempo, with the contrasts between legato (smooth) and staccato (detached) textures in Variation II made more extreme by the lack of pedals in the detached portions. One facet of Lewis’ playing is his frequent use of the left pedal at lower dynamic levels; this is a permissible strategy, but on Monday night’s instrument, the tone quality was markedly different when this una corda pedal was depressed, even in places where this didn't seem to be particularly desirable. In Variation VI the gradual increase in the density of events which culminates in a series of trills was shaped convincingly. However, the final unadorned statement of the theme with which the movement finishes sounded prosaic when it should have been transfigured.

Brahms’ Op.10 Ballades were considerably more impressive. The first, based on the grim Scottish poem Edward, began in plangent fashion, and Lewis had just the right weight of sound for the chorale. The central portion of no. 2 was taut and exciting, and no. 3 followed without a break, the opening staccato chords as abrupt and tense as Musorgsky’s “Baba Yaga”. Lewis conveyed the weirdness of this music in a performance that was deliberately unsettling. There were some intriguing proto-impressionist pedal effects in the quiet, high-register central section; no. 4 sounded almost sentimental initially, although Lewis followed Brahms in undermining this atmosphere as the music proceeded.

After the interval, the three gems comprising Brahms’ Op.117 Intermezzi were given intelligent readings. In the first, Lewis took a planar approach: he avoided excessive dynamic swells in the main material, but demonstrated that it was possible to be expressive within a narrow sonic ambit. For my taste, the extra inner part decorating the main theme on its later reappearance was a bit too prominent. In no. 2, Lewis resisted the temptation to surge through the broken chords, again with a pay-off in conveying feeling through restraint. The coda was a weighted meditation on mortality, and was followed by some beautiful mysterious colours in no. 3.

The intimate – even introverted – atmosphere of this set of pieces was banished by the vigorous opening gestures of Beethoven’s last sonata. Lewis took the descending octaves in two hands, reducing the visual drama but ensuring cleanliness. The angular violence of the Allegro theme was captured, although greater excitement might have been created by starting the unison passagework that follows more quietly and building as it moves up the keyboard. Lewis negotiated the many tricky moments with consummate professionalism, and allowed Beethoven’s thrilling despair to come through.

There was no break between the final C major chord of this movement and the start of the Arietta theme. This 16-bar melody which, as the pianist had pointed out in his brief introductory words, is among the simplest structures in any piano work, was really exquisite in Lewis' hands, with the return from the relative minor particularly delicious. Yet Variation I was too matter-of-fact for its dolce marking. The famous Variation III, in which Beethoven ‘invents’ boogie-woogie with his swung rhythms, was properly exuberant. The triple trills later on were technically superb, and while I’ve encountered more moving renditions of that extraordinary moment when the variation structure is resumed, this was nonetheless a highly satisfying performance of one of Beethoven's greatest sonatas.

To my way of thinking, no music is possible after this sonata, but we were given an encore anyway, Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor D915. This C minor coda, after the transcendent C major finish of Beethoven’s Op.111, was wistful and winsomely played, but never managed to efface the impression of being little more than a formality after the main spiritual event.