The pianist talks about his early passions, the rigours of Alfred Brendel and surviving a Liverpudlian seagull swoop.
Paul Lewis The pianist with the special relationship to Beethoven talks to Clive Paget about early passions, the rigours of Alfred Brendel and surviving a Liverpudlian seagull swoop.
You famously grew up in a non-classical music family, how did you get drawn into it all?
It was all really to do with the local library, which was really well stocked with LPs and recordings. I had a thing for music. When I was four I had a little toy organ bought for me as a Christmas present and I started picking out tunes on that. I started to learn the cello when I was eight and around that time I got into the idea of taking these records out from the library and just discovering all this music. It was something I wanted to do. It was there and I just wanted to know about it.
So, were you listening to solo piano players at that time?
Yeah, they had quite a good range actually. There was a lot of symphonic stuff and there were a lot of solo pianists that they had in stock. Alfred Brendel was one of them, coincidentally. They had most of his early recordings from the ‘50s and ‘60s – the early Vox-Turnabout recordings, when he first recorded all the Beethoven piano music. In fact, he was one of the first pianists that I got to know.
“When I was a teenager I was seriously into Martha Argerich. I was so excited by that energetic, more impulsive type of playing”
What other piano heroes did you have at that point?
I don’t know who was decideding on the collection there but they had a lot of Kempff. He was one of the first pianists whose playing I really got to love. When I was a teenager I was seriously into Martha Argerich. I was so excited by that energetic, more impulsive type of playing. But that was a little bit later on.
You ended up studying with Brendel. How important would you say he has been to your career as a musician?
It was a huge privilege just to learn from someone with that knowledge, experience and grasp of what music is and how it relates to other things around us. In that sense, it’s been wonderful. With a musical personality as powerful as that, I do feel you have to take one step back in order to try to translate it into something that is relevant to your own way of doing things and your own language. Otherwise you end up attempting to copy and that is a disaster of course. It took me a little bit of time to work out how to handle all that information. In the ‘90s, when I was playing for him, it was such an important process for me – and a great privilege to have access to someone like that.
He always comes across as an approachable, benign figure. Was he also a hard taskmaster?
Absolutely! He was very demanding and very exacting as a teacher. He has his ideas, and he has his vision and concept of music. He was never a teacher in the sense that a great teacher might try to tap into what it is that makes a student tick – to try to get something from them along the lines of their own personality. He wasn’t like that at all. He communicated his own idea of the music and it was really up to me to try to make sense of that. He was incredibly demanding along those lines. As he’s become older, I think he’s become mellower. We saw him just a few weeks ago at our little chamber music festival. He came and did his A-to-Z pianist lecture. At this stage of his life he’s incredibly mellow and sweet, and seems easier going than he has been in the past.
Like Brendel, Beethoven has been a cornerstone of your own repertoire for over 20 years. How have your thoughts developed over that time?
It’s a gradual process. I never set out to radically reassess anything but sometimes it just happens. Sometimes you come back to a piece that you think you know quite well and suddenly it all looks different. It’s not that there is any particular intention. It’s just that in the intervening time you’ve lived a few years longer, you’ve done a lot of different things, and it all feeds in somehow to your overall experience of music and life. I don’t set out to be different, but I think if you’re experiencing music and you’re constantly relating it to other things in your life, it’s inevitable that it’s not going to stand still – and I don’t think that it should.
What thinking is behind your programme for this particular tour?
I’m playing the last three Beethoven sonatas in my recital programme this year. I thought it was a nice idea to pair up two of those sonatas with two sets of Brahms pieces. The Beethoven Opus 109 is one of the more inward looking and lyrical of the late Beethoven sonatas. I feel there is a real connection pairing it with Brahms’ Opus 117, which is one of the most reflective sets of late Brahms. Similarly with the Brahms Ballads and the Opus 111 of Beethoven. There is a lot of drive, anguish and determination in the first movement of Opus 111 and that pairs up very nicely with the Brahms Ballads, which are a little more extrovert and have that same sort of urgency.
In the recording studio you are associated with a relatively small group of composers – Schubert, Beethoven, Mozart. Which other composers do you play?
My latest CD was the Schumann Fantasy and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. The Schumann I have been playing for some years. Mussorgsky was something I kind of learnt as a teenager but never played, so I wanted to come back to that. I’ve just recorded Brahms D Minor Piano Concerto and that’s out next year. Aside from that, over the next few years I’m going back to the Prokofiev sonatas that I used to play when I was a teenager – when I was at school I was heavily into Prokofiev – so I am pairing that up with some Scriabin, which is another early obsession of mine, that I haven’t played for some time. In a couple of years I am also planning on returning to Bach. He is a composer that I play to myself. I practice it, I mostly study it, at home, but I’ve never really felt that I’ve built up the confidence to get it across in public. It’s 15 years now since I played Bach in public. I’m playing the B Flat Partita in a couple of year’s time and there is a plan to make a Bach CD as well.
Your work is often kind of thought of as concentrated or thoughtful. What do you listen to or do to unwind?
I don’t listen to anything to unwind [laughs]. Sometimes, you know, I put on a completely different kind of music to that which I play. For instance, I am a big fan of Esperanza Spalding and that somehow can be relaxing or maybe diverting from what I’m studying, at least. But when you’re dealing with music all the time, the most precious thing is silence. That peace, that space away from it that is what I find most relaxing of all, if I’m honest.
I have to ask you about the seagull, which we read about here. What happened?
Well, I was turning up to rehearsal for the Royal Liverpool Phil. I’d noticed actually while I was sitting in my car that there was a seagull swooping down at people. So, I stayed in my car a bit longer until it seemed to have disappeared. So I got out and walked from my car to the building, which is only a matter of metres really, but it clearly hadn’t disappeared. It was just watching from somewhere – it must’ve been nesting, I guess. It swooped down at me from behind, so I didn’t see it coming and it got me on the back of the head. And as it did so, of course I was startled by that, I ducked and ran at the same time and lost my balance and put my hand out to stop my fall and the middle finger on my right hand kind of went sideways and I sprained a ligament. That was just over three weeks ago. Ligaments take six weeks to heal fully. At the moment now, just over three weeks into it, I’m starting to play again and it’s beginning to feel fine. In terms of sprains it’s probably not a really bad sprain, but it’s bad enough to stop a pianist from playing the piano.
I must warn you that we do have a seagull swooping season in Sydney, quite a notorious one, and it is coming up, maybe about when you’re here!
Oh No! I think they’ll have to provide me with a seagull swatter or something so I can just whack them as they come down!
Paul Lewis plays Beethoven and Brahms on tour for Musica Viva from August 24-September 12