The English pianist Paul Lewis continues to stamp his considerable imprimatur on some of the world’s best-loved repertoire with another impeccable release through the Harmonia Mundi label.

The Liverpool docker’s son from a non-musical family turns now from late Schubert and Mussorgsky to Brahms for his latest foray, combining the mighty Piano Concerto No 1 with a lovely reading of the Four Ballades, Op. 10.

The Concerto started out as a double piano sonata, but then Brahms realised that was too limiting so he considered it for a symphony. Lacking confidence in his orchestral writing, however – and with the “footsteps of Beethoven” always behind him – he put that aside until, he confided to Clara Schumann, the idea of making it into a concerto came to him in a dream. It didn’t materialise for a year or so and because he obsessively destroyed material that didn’t meet his perfectionist standards, it’s impossible to know how much of the original concept remains.

The premiere in Hanover was successful but at Leipzig it was hissed. “I am plainly experimenting and still groping,” the poor 23-year-old Brahms wrote to his friend and confidant Joseph Joachim. It was only after a Berlin critic denounced the Leipzig notices and defended the work that Brahms gradually accepted that it had some merit.

The majestic and sweeping first movement, which takes up half the work’s length, was what excited some and puzzled others. This is Brahms at his symphonic best, presenting us with a wealth of contrasting ideas, not allowing the piano to compete with the orchestra but making them equal partners in the whole. The Swedish Radio Symphony under dynamic British conductor Daniel Harding are certainly up for the challenge.

Lewis, a regular visitor to Australia, is in sparkling form. Mentored by Alfred Brendel, he has established himself as perhaps the most conservative of a triumvirate of top-notch Brits alongside pianists Stephen Hough and Steven Osborne.

The innate ‘rightness’ of Lewis’s decisions are amply demonstrated

This is not a failing however, and Lewis’s considerable poetic instincts and the innate ‘rightness’ of his decisions are amply demonstrated in the Four Ballades. These pieces were written at around the same time as the abandoned double sonata. Up until then Brahms had conformed to the rigid structure of sonata form, but Chopin’s experiments with the idea of the more narrative-influenced ballade set him on a new path.

From the melodrama of the first to the magical other-worldliness of the intermezzo Third Ballade, Lewis combines the lyricism and gutsy heft to carry it all off. More please!


Click here to read our interview with Paul Lewis