Paul Lewis explains why he’s shifted gears from the piano works of a Classic to a Romantic.

Having recorded Schubert and Beethoven so extensively, does Brahms require you to shift gears in any significant way?

Not consciously, although every work you play – even different works by the same composer – requires something different in approach. The main ‘gear shift’ for me was probably five or six years ago when I suddenly realised I wanted to play more Brahms. Up until that point I had mostly avoided Brahms, feeling that the craft of the composition was so perfect that it somehow acted as a barrier to the expressive content. I don’t feel that anymore, especially not with early Brahms.

Much has been made of the turmoil in Brahms’ personal life while he composed this concerto. How important is that for your interpretation of the work?

It’s quite a big deal as far as this particular work is concerned. The D Minor concerto was composed in the wake of his friend Schumann having plunged himself into the Rhein, which we know affected Brahms very deeply. For me, there is a submerged quality about the very first note of the piece, as well as a sense of utter desperation. There’s an emotional rawness about it all, which doesn’t always appear in Brahms, but is as clear as it could possibly be here. His love for Clara Schumann also plays a significant part in this work. Brahms told Joseph Joachim that the slow movement was a portrait of Clara, and the beauty and reverence of the slow movement put this into painful perspective for us. It’s as if the music represents something of incredible beauty, which is untouchable – just out of reach.  

Brahms was contemplating a symphony, but ultimately it became his first piano concerto. Do you sense that and does it affect your approach as a soloist?

The huge symphonic character of much of this piece is undoubtedly a result of how it started life. It could well have ended up as a symphony – the musical ideas certainly lend themselves to that. But there is also a lot of intimate writing contained within the work, and one of the big challenges of playing this piece is to find that balance between being the soloist (when required), orchestral sonorities, chamber music, and also being part of the overall orchestral texture.

The early performances of the concerto by Brahms received both positive and negative responses. Looking at it now, do any of those criticisms seem just?

It’s hard to say from this distance whether any of the criticisms seem just – but I would have loved to have heard it! It’s probably fair to say at that time it must have been a huge chunk of music for many people to swallow – in the way that many great and ground-breaking works were when they were first performed.

What special qualities did conductor Daniel Harding bring to the performances?

It’s always a pleasure to work with Daniel Harding – there’s an incredible attention to detail, colour, and character without ever losing a sense of the overall shape of the work. There’s also a strong sense of collaboration and cooperation with him, which one needs in a work like this as much as any. I have very happy memories of the concerts we played from which this recording was made – some of the colours that the orchestra were producing struck me as bordering on the miraculous!

Was there a special reason you chose to pair the concerto with the Four Ballades?

The Ballades were written at roughly the same time, and also have a rawness and a desperation about them. There’s also a darkness bordering on brutality, which is an area the concerto doesn’t quite venture into. In general I’d say the Ballades are more experimental pieces than the concerto while sharing some important characteristics, but in both cases one senses the passion of the young Brahms.

What are your plans for the future, and will this be part of a larger Brahms cycle?

In terms of concerts, yes there will be more Brahms over the next few years. Between 2017 and 2019 I’ll be playing a Haydn/Beethoven/Brahms series of four recital programmes, each of which will include one of the late sets of Brahms piano music, Op. 116 to Op. 119.

Click here to read our review of Paul Lewis’s latest Harmonia Mundi album