I suppose it might be oxymoronic to say a musician's repertory is limited but vast. Yet, contradiction or no, that's the case with English pianist Paul Lewis (b. 1972). He "limits" himself largely to the Classical and Romantic periods, playing music mostly by composers from the Austro-Germanic sphere. If that seems to be a narrow range, consider that it includes the thirty-two sonatas and five concertos of Beethoven – all recorded by Harmonia Mundi – a large chunk of Mozart's output, works by Brahms and Liszt, and not only the piano sonatas of Schubert but the major song collections as well, which Lewis has recorded for the same label with tenor Mark Padmore. Not exactly a paltry tally.
Lewis studied with Alfred Brendel, who just so happened to share the same kind of preferences in repertory. Lewis has called Brendel his mentor and it's easy to see the older pianist's influence on Lewis' style. Both seem to be self-effacing interpreters – that is, they eschew flash and virtuosic grandstanding and tend to play the music as they believe the composer wanted it performed. In Schubert's case that's not necessarily an easy task owing to the composer's tendency to offer sparse markings in the score regarding dynamics and tempo. But Lewis manages quite well, offering probing, dynamic and vital interpretations of these four sonatas that can stand with the finest renditions by Brendel, Uchida, Lupu and other fine Schubertians.
I've noted that Brendel's influence can be noticed in Lewis' pianism, but that is not to say the younger artist slavishly imitates his mentor. Actually, Lewis plays with somewhat more muscle and perhaps a bit more color, though like Brendel he often carves out a straightforward, somewhat objective approach. That said, his emotional and dramatic range is as broad as that of almost any other pianist, past or present. Indeed, Lewis unearths the sense of darkness in the first movement of the A minor (D. 784) with a probing incisiveness and almost chilling sense of foreboding, right from the opening bars. And he delights with an infectious effervescence in the playful Scherzo of the A major (D. 959). The contrasting moods in the ensuing finale of that sonata are deftly rendered too and with all manner of subtle dynamics and tonal beauty. Lewis imparts an epic sense to the opening of the B Flat Major (D. 960) and goes on once again to capture the full range of Schubert's expressive palette, and always with a deft sense for the correct tempo and dynamics. With Lewis nothing ever drags or lacks spirit: try the Adagio second movement of the C minor Sonata (D.958) and notice how he deftly creates a sense of mystery in the slower music, then imparts a feeling of thrust with splendidly judged dynamics that swell and recede in perfect concordance with the flow of the music's drama. In other hands this movement can at times sink into stagnation. In the end, you notice Lewis' sensitivity and consistency in capturing the emotional trajectory of virtually every passage in these sonatas.
Incidentally, I didn't notice any grunting or humming, traits supposedly associated with Lewis, at least in live performance. (Alfred Brendel was known for the same thing – hmmm, could that have been passed on?). Harmonia Mundi's sound reproduction is clear and powerful. The album notes are informative, if a bit cerebral. Highly recommended!
Copyright © 2014, Robert Cummings