Brisbane Festival is always a fascinating mixture of different arts; if you can’t find something that interests you across the dozens of different plays, comedy acts, gigs, and recitals then you probably haven’t looked hard enough. It’s a joy to be able to pick from, for instance, the re-formed Townsville folk-ish band The Middle East, or the jazz wunderkind Jacob Collier, or, in this case, a world-class pianist like Paul Lewis.
Paul Lewis. Photo © Jack Liebeck
In addition to this recital Lewis is also an artist-in-residence for the Queensland Symphony Orchestra for 2019, although in practice it seems like that means a concerto and a recital in September, and a concerto in November. For my money, this recital is by far the most interesting of the three – the concerto in November is the Grieg Piano Concerto, which I think I’ve heard just one too many times to be truly excited about.
Over the past couple of years or so, Lewis has been performing a set of four programs based on the trio of Haydn/Brahms/Beethoven, a triumvirate which Lewis argues combines to great effect. I have to say I agree – pitting Haydn’s neat classicism against Brahms’ reserved seriousness works a treat, for instance. The line-up Lewis performed was the last of these complementary programs.
Lewis opened with Haydn’s Sonata in E minor, Hob XVI: 34. This is Haydn taking cues from the sturm und drang of composers like CPE Bach, with a curious stop-start shape to the theme of the first movement. Lewis shaped this with absolute care, and the silences that punctuated the movement were so naturally shaped you could almost sense the audience breathing with Lewis. The final movement was a charming finale, full of harpsichord-esque clarity and precision.
Lewis continued with Brahms’ Three Intermezzi, Op. 117. To my shame, I’ve never been a huge fan of Brahms (personally, I’d trade him for the more mercurial Schumann), but I’ve long thought that these pieces are one of Brahms’ highlights. They’re tiny little jewels, but very dark – these were referred to by Brahms as “the cradle-songs of my sorrow”. These were quietly conversational in Lewis’ performance, while remaining reserved. Lewis hasn’t recorded these yet, but I’m keen to see if he does so soon.
After the interval, Lewis upped the ante with Beethoven’s ever-so-slightly cruel Diabelli Variations. Although I always feel sorry for Diabelli (or at least his reputation as a composer) with Beethoven’s complete destruction and triumphant reconstruction of Diabelli’s theme, when the world gets music this transcendent out of the bargain then I’ll happily side with Beethoven. This is familiar territory for Lewis, and his 2011 recording for Harmonia Mundi is probably one of the best, full-stop. What makes it so wonderful is a sense of the work as a whole, since it’s so big that a lesser performance can lose the core of Diabelli’s theme. Particular highlights were the crunchy discords of variation IX, and the humour of the knock-knock jokes in variation XIII. The final three variations were sublime.
Lewis duly supplied an encore. As he said, what else can be said after the Diabelli Variations? So, he concluded with part of Beethoven’s next work for solo piano, the Bagatelle No 5 in G major from the Op. 126 set. This was, of course, played beautifully.
For Lewis’ performance, this would probably be one of the easiest five-star-reviews I’ve ever handed out. However, there’s something odd about the acoustic in the QSO Studio in the ABC Building when it comes to the piano. Whenever Lewis played at forte or fortissimo in the upper register without a lower part beneath, the attack of the hammers became startlingly and distractingly obvious – almost a sort of whoosh of reverberation every time. At first I thought it was just me, but the first thing my concert partner asked after the first half was whether I’d noticed the odd effect. It’s not something I’d ever noticed before, but then again, I’d also only seen QSO’s chamber series without piano in the space before, and acoustical improvements being necessary for the space was even mentioned before the concert began. So, five stars for Lewis’ brilliance, but minus half a star for the acoustic.