The English pianist explains why five particular masterworks have him endlessly coming back for more.

Do you remember when you first came into contact with Beethoven’s music?

I must have been eight-years old – it was when I started going to the local library where we lived, just outside Liverpool. They had all these records and it just so happened that they were really well stocked with that repertoire in particular – Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert. That’s where I first got to know all this music. I remember my first contact with the Beethoven Symphonies was the early ’60s Karajan recordings of Berlin Phil. The library had all of those and lots of other things.

Was there something that particularly drew you to the Beethoven or was it simply a matter of what was available?

I don’t know what it was. I do remember being really enthusiastic about it and certain things stick out in my mind from that time. Like the transition in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony from the slow introduction to the main part of the first movement, with those repeated dominant seventh chords. I just couldn’t stop playing it over and over again. There was something I felt that was really satisfying about that music. I was far more drawn to that than to anything more modern or contemporary at that time in my life.

Did you listen to much of the piano music then or was it purely the orchestral repertoire?

It was lots of the piano music. By coincidence they had all of Alfred Brendel’s early recordings – the ones he did in the ’50s and ’60s – on Vox. So Alfred Brendel was the first pianist whose playing I really got to be familiar with, it’s just coincidental that we happened to make contact years later.

Alfred Brendel is, of course, a renowned Beethoven interpreter. What was the most important thing he taught you about playing Beethoven?

I wish I could say, really. There were so many things – so many specific details that have been very useful in terms of how Beethoven writes, what he writes on the score and how that relates to his piano writing.

I think in general – it’s not a Beethoven-specific thing – those lessons I had with Alfred in the ’90s showed me a great example of someone who just puts music first. I know that sounds pretty obvious, but the fact that he is a pianist – and obviously a great pianist – is secondary to the fact that he’s a great musician. He’s someone who uses the piano as a means to an end – it’s not just about sitting down and playing piano music – the piano is an instrument of transformation. To have access to that and to see how he works with the piano, at close range, was a huge inspiration. Beethoven as much as any composer really benefits, I feel, from that kind of approach. There’s so much in Beethoven’s piano writing that is orchestral, that you have to approach it like that.

Are there any other Beethoven interpreters, past or present, whose work you admire?

Within that approach there’s Wilhelm Kempff and Edwin Fischer whose playing I’ve always loved. There were a lot of Kempff recordings back in the music library. I came to get to know Edwin Fischer’s recordings a little bit later. But it’s all for the same reason really, it’s that orchestral approach that transcends what the piano is, that I find very inspiring. Later on I loved the Beethoven playing of Richard Goode, for instance, I think he’s a wonderful Beethoven player. But there are many different pianists whose playing I love, all for different reasons.

You’ve recorded the concertos – not to mention all the sonatas – and performed them countless times. Is there anything left for you to discover in them?

Every time I come back there’s something to discover. That’s the mark of really great music – you discover something new every time. I gave most of the Beethoven concertos a break of a few years and I’ve been coming back to them this year. I find, for instance, I see the first movement of the Fourth Concerto very differently compared to five years ago. I find it much more of a fantasy than anything else. I think the tempo is a little bit slower, but there’s more detail, there’s more to notice in it. I don’t know why that happens. I guess you just work at other things, you have experiences in your life, and you come back to this great music and see it differently. Everything feeds into it somehow. Every time it feels rather different.

You were famously the first to perform all five Beethoven Concertos in a Proms season in 2010. What are some of the challenges of performing the complete cycle?

One of the challenges is to try and be on equal terms with all five in a short space of time. But the more you do it – I wouldn’t say the easier it gets – the more you get used to it. Your relationship with each of those concertos changes over time, so It’s difficult to feel that you really are on equal terms with all the concertos. But that’s just part of the process – that’s the process of living with them. Each performance you learn something new. I find you can work at pieces until you’re blue in the face, but it’s in the performances that you really learn. At least that’s what I discover. And of course when you work with a great orchestra and conductor the discoveries can be really inspirational. I’ve worked with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra before, and with Dougie Boyd, and it’s always been fantastic.

Do you think the audiences – and you as a performer – hear the works differently when they’re played together as a cycle as opposed to individually?

I think when you hear them in quick succession you really can feel the progression – you feel the journey. I think that’s important. You feel that each concerto is an experience within itself but I think the cumulative experience of hearing all five – not in one go – but in quick succession is something that really enhances the experience. It adds something to it. You can feel where Beethoven was going, from the early concertos and then the Third, the C Minor, which really is a pivotal work in the cycle. It’s the first with the real Beethovenian stamp of drama. And then the Fourth, which goes in a totally different direction. I think you can feel a kind of progression or development musically through that.

Do you have a favourite moment in the concertos?

The slow movement of the Fourth Concerto has to be a favourite moment, because it’s so unique – the idea of introspection taming the more forceful character that the orchestra presents, the idea that intimacy and introspection can actually win over, is a wonderful thing. It’s a unique moment in Beethoven, in all his work. That stands out, for me.

As a pianist you’re focused on one particular part of Beethoven’s output. Are you ever envious of those who get to do the symphonies and the string quartets?

Oh yeah, of course! I’d love to spend time playing the string quartets and the symphonies. There are arrangements of symphonies, but I don’t play them myself. In a way, I’d love to be involved with it but for me to sit down and play a Beethoven symphony on the piano is not really what I want to do. I thought of doing the Beethoven arrangement of the Violin Concerto as a piano concerto, because it’s just such great music and there’s that crazy cadenza he wrote for that particular arrangement – which would be great fun – but that’s not something I’ve got around to yet. Of course, it just works better on the violin because that’s what it was written for. But it’s tempting to want to be greedy – with all the repertoire that we have as pianists – to be greedy enough to want that as well, it’s tempting. I don’t know yet – I might still play it.

You’ve worked with Douglas Boyd before. What do you think he’ll bring to the table?

Dougie’s a fantastic musician. It’s always been wonderful to work with him. He brings a real sense of style – amongst many other things – to the performance. There’s a real balance, I think. He’s very historically informed in terms of performance practice but not to the extent where you feel it’s a kind of system being applied. He does it with such great musical awareness. For me that’s a wonderful thing because there’s a great balance of being stylistically authentic but also reacting to the music in a way that really feels right. I’ve played almost all the Beethoven concertos with him at one time or another but not all together, so I’m really looking forward to that.


Paul Lewis will performs Beethoven’s Piano Concertos with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Douglas Boyd, through to September 17

Tickets for Piano Concertos Nos 2 and 3 on September 10, Piano Concerto No 4 on September 14, Piano Concerto No 5 on September 17.