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Paul Lewis: A 50th Birthday Celebration

Paul Lewis standing in some blurred out reeds

How do you go about putting together a recital that encapsulates you as an artist at 50? Harriet Smith finds out. 

There’s no easy answer, especially when the musician in question is British pianist Paul Lewis – someone who has built a career of considerable stature while remaining understated and modest in conversation.  

Composers such as Beethoven and Schubert have long been central to his life in the concert hall and recording studio (he memorably performed all five Beethoven concertos at the 2010 Proms, each with a different orchestra and conductor). So a 50th-birthday celebration without Beethoven would have been strange indeed. But even for such a seasoned interpreter of his music, starting a concert with the fiery Pathétique is no walk in the park. As Lewis explains: ‘I love it because it makes such an arresting opening to a concert – it really sets the pace for the entire recital – but it’s nerve-wracking too, as those opening bars are so dramatic.’ 

The Pathétique is one of those sonatas, alongside the Appassionata with which Lewis ends the concert, where the nickname isn’t Beethoven’s own, but it’s more apt than some: its craggy slow introduction – something Beethoven had never previously used in a piano sonata – has a powerful gravitas to it, emphasised by its dramatic key of C minor (one that he was to use equally potently in his Fifth Symphony and Third Piano Concerto) and even as the music gathers speed, its doom-laden power is not to be shaken off. And, notwithstanding a lyrical slow movement that offers much-needed serenity, it’s C minor and a mood of defiance that ends the piece. 

The Pathétique is the product of a composer not yet 30, whereas the Appassionata dates from between Beethoven’s Third and Fifth Symphonies and very much emulates their fist-shaking drama. And though it’s again in a minor key (F minor) it’s more heroic in mood than the Pathétique. It’s also a work technically beyond the capabilities of most amateur pianists – the sonata had, in Beethoven’s hands, become the domain of professional artists. And here we also have a perfect example of a composer responding to the development of the instrument itself: the low ‘F’ that appears in the opening phrase of the Appassionata was beyond the reach of earlier pianos but featured on the new Érard he’d recently received. 

A couple of decades later, the Érard piano was to become the favoured make of Chopin’s, a composer whose music we wouldn’t necessarily immediately associate with Paul Lewis. Today’s programme includes the near-nihilistic Polonaise-fantaisie, written just three years before the composer’s premature death in 1849. Had Chopin in fact been a long-held passion restricted to the practice room or a new-found enthusiasm for Lewis? He ponders: ‘I do find myself being quite selective with his music – I had a Polish piano teacher, Ryszard Bakst, at Chetham’s and the essential thing I learnt from him was the underlying dignity in Chopin’s musical language: that’s a quality that can be hard to project in performance. And, for me, the mazurkas in particular are very hard to bring off without feeling like a fraud. But in the case of this polonaise I feel I can grasp it, especially as it’s a fantasy too. It’s one of the saddest pieces I know – anguished and desperate and introspective at the same time. And while the Appassionata contains anguish too, it shakes its fist at you, whereas this is ultimately resigned.’ 

Like Chopin, the remaining two composers in this birthday celebration – Mendelssohn and Sibelius – are not necessarily closely associated with Lewis. Both are arguably underrated when it comes to their solo piano music – though for different reasons. Mendelssohn’s fecundity when it came to writing his Songs without Words perhaps counted against him in much the same way as Grieg and his Lyric Pieces, whereas Sibelius hardly helped matters when he was himself so dismissive of his piano pieces, regarding them as a pale imitations of his music for violin (his own instrument) and, of course, orchestra. For Lewis, Mendelssohn has long been on his radar: ‘They are just such perfect, lyrical miniatures – how can you not want to play them?’ and the biggest challenge was whittling down his selection to a mere five. The Sibelius pieces, on the other hand, have more recently come into his life. ‘I didn’t know any of Sibelius’s solo piano music and it was a lockdown discovery – as I started listening I thought what fantastic miniatures these were. In the case of the Op 97 Bagatelles, you get references to all sorts of different things – in the first piece there are hints of Janáček, while the second is a cross between a Schubert song and a Grieg Lyric Piece, and you also have a waltz and a march and then the final piece is serious, even though it’s fleeting.’

It’ll be intriguing to hear how these discoveries inform the next decade of music-making from this remarkable musician. Happy 50th Birthday, Paul Lewis! 

© Harriet Smith

Programme and performers

Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata No 8 in C minor, Pathétique
1. Grave – Allegro di molto e con brio
2. Adagio cantabile
3. Rondo: Allegro
Felix Mendelssohn No 1 in E major from Songs without words, Op 19
No 3 in G minor from Songs without words, Op 53
No 2 in E-flat major from Songs without words, Op 53
No 2 in A minor from Songs without words, Op 19
No 3 in E major from Songs without words, Op 30
Jean Sibelius Six Bagatelles
1. Humoreske I
2. Lied
3. Kleiner Walzer
4. Humoristischer Marsch
5. Impromptu
6. Humoreske II

Frédéric Chopin Polonaise No 7 in A-flat major, Polonaise-fantaisie
Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Sonata No 23 in F minor, Appassionata
1. Allegro assai
2. Andante con moto
3. Allegro ma non troppo – Presto

Paul Lewis piano

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis is one of today’s foremost interpreters of the Central European piano repertoire, his performances and recordings of Beethoven and Schubert receiving universal critical acclaim. He was awarded a CBE for his services to music in 2016, and the sincerity and depth of his musical approach have won him fans around the world. This global popularity is reflected in the world-class orchestras with whom he works and the international concert halls and festivals where he performs.  

Born in Liverpool in 1972, Paul studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama with Joan Havill before going on to study privately with Alfred Brendel. He quickly became a favourite with London’s concert audience in particular, and has performed at the Wigmore Hall over 100 times, as well as making regular appearances at the Barbican, Southbank Centre and the BBC Proms, where he was the first pianist to perform all 5 Beethoven piano concerti in a single season in 2010. 

His award-winning and extensive discography for Harmonia Mundi ranges from Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and Weber through to Schumann, Liszt, Mussorgsky and Brahms. He has also recorded Schubert ‘s 3 lieder cycles with Mark Padmore.

In addition to his busy concert career Paul and his wife Bjørg are co-Artistic Directors of the Midsummer Music festival in Buckinghamshire. He makes his debut solo recital at the Barbican Centre tonight in celebration of his 50th birthday.