For those who know you through recordings, Haydn is a new composer for you. Is that the case? And what brings you to his music here and now?
I played quite a bit of Haydn when I was a teenager and also while I was a student, so he’s not really new. It’s been a while since I turned my attention to Haydn, but I’ve always been fascinated by his music’s ability to engage, surprise and poke fun at the listener – no other composer manages to do that in quite the same way.
Haydn clearly influenced Beethoven who clearly influenced Brahms, but what other connections might you hope to bring out in your recital programme for Melbourne?
My original thought was to play a Haydn-only series, but then I got thinking about the connections and contrasts between his music and other composers. It strikes me that Brahms is in many ways opposite to Haydn – I don’t detect any humour in Brahms at all, for instance! There’s deep seriousness in Brahms of course, as there is also in Haydn, but none of the fooling around that Haydn loves to engage in. It struck me that Beethoven, in his Bagatelles and Diabelli Variations, looks in both directions and provides a kind of foundation, which binds Haydn and Brahms together. You have some very quirky, humorous elements in the Bagatelles, which are so reminiscent of Haydn, side by side with a sense of looking forward to Brahms with music that’s passionate, deeply serious, and often introspective.
You’re especially well known for your Beethoven playing, though I don’t think you’ve ever recorded any of the Bagatelles. What special pleasures do you find in these miniatures, and what do they reveal to us about the composer?
No, I haven’t recorded the Bagatelles, although I’m in the process of doing so for release in 2020. In the Bagatelles, Beethoven shows us that he is as much the master of the miniature as he is of larger forms. His ability to distill a message into the fewest possible notes is perhaps clearer than ever in his small pieces.
Haydn wrote more piano sonatas than Beethoven, whose works in the form have tended to eclipse his distinguished predecessor. Is this entirely fair? And what reasons lie behind your choice of the Sonata in C (Hob XVI/50) and the Sonata in G (Hob XVI/40)?
The sonatas in this programme are two of his most humorous, which offset the more serious late Beethoven Bagatelles and Brahms Op. 118. I don’t think it’s fair that Haydn’s sonatas have become somewhat neglected these days, even if Beethoven achieved a unique individuality of expression right from his earliest sonatas. There are real gems to be found throughout Haydn’s cycle, and I’ve tried to include some of the less known pieces, like the G Major for instance.
Thinking about Haydn’s piano sonatas, what qualities do you see most strongly reflected in Beethoven’s works?
Humour, tenderness, introspection, and structure.
On paper, the Brahms would seem to be the most challenging music for a pianist. Is that the case? And what are the greatest technical and emotional challenges about the works you have chosen by each of these three composers?
All three composers are challenging in their own individual ways. With Haydn timing and clarity are crucial, Beethoven requires constant control of character, balance and structure, while Brahms needs a totally different, much wider, sound world.
Finally, what are your most recent plans as regards the recording studio?
Haydn Sonatas, (two discs – one for release in early 2018, one in 2019), and Beethoven Bagatelles (2020).
Paul Lewis plays Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms at Melbourne Recital Centre on December 4.
He will return to Melbourne with a second installment in October 2018.