★★★★★ Silence is key to Lewis’s masterly Beethoven and Brahms.

Melbourne Recital Centre
September 1, 2015

English pianist Paul Lewis is renowned for his performances of central European classical repertoire, and his acclaimed recordings of the complete cycles of Beethoven’s Piano Concertos and Sonatas have received multiple international awards. He is currently in the midst of his third visit to Australia as a soloist, presenting a programme of short Brahms pieces bookended by two late Beethoven sonatas.

Both sonatas were written in the early 1820s, when Beethoven was completely deaf, seriously ill, and considered something of a down-and-out has-been in Vienna. All this contributed to the increasingly experimental sound world of the late sonatas, which Lewis navigated with mastery, noting that “all the pieces in tonight’s program end softly – they all somehow find silence.” His reading of the No 30, Op. 109 sonata was characterised by restraint and glorious lyrical legato in the first two movements, building to a speeding, explosive final movement.

This was followed by Four Ballades, Op. 10 from a young Brahms, written when he had not long moved in with the Schumanns and was beginning to negotiate the ensuing emotional turbulence. The Three Intermezzi, Op. 117 from nearly forty years later displayed a more complex, introspective anguish, with Brahms describing them as “lullabies to my sorrows”. Lewis delivered these with muscular delicacy and acute emotional nuance.

Related: The pianist talks about his early passions, the rigours of Alfred Brendel and surviving a Liverpudlian seagull swoop.

Countless hours and pages have been devoted to discussion of Beethoven’s last Piano Sonata, Op. 111, completed early in 1822. It remains one of the most extraordinary pieces of music in the entire piano repertoire, its revolutionary two-movement structure housing a series of violent stream-of-consciousness mood swings, a ‘trip’ on which one has no choice but to surrender. Lewis was absolutely commanding in the thunderous first movement, which he rightly described as an “almost relentless bundle of tension and drama.” His segue from volcanic agony into the delicate, deceptively simple and anguished Arietta with absolutely precise balance was breathtaking, a study in ‘less is more’ stillness as emotional conduit. As a ferociously jaunty century-early boogie-woogie precursor gave way to resigned acceptance, otherworldly trills floated strangely in space, fading in and out like a sort of pre-electric panning tremolo. Lewis is a consummate trill-master, the wood of the piano audible, breathing – until the sonata finally died out, resolving in silence and some form of peace.

Earlier when Lewis spoke briefly, he noted that with late Beethoven, and with this sonata particularly, it is “the silence around the sound that is the important thing… it draws you into its silence.” Lewis held this silence for many seconds at the conclusion of this masterful, transcendent performance, eventually guiding his audience back from the existential brink with a considerably less unhinged encore: the Schubert C Minor Allegretto, D915. Pianist Imogen Cooper (with whom Lewis has regularly duetted) once noted that she preferred not to leave concert-goers in a state of desolation by concluding with a harrowing work; perhaps this was also Lewis’s rationale, in addition to rewarding a wildly enthusiastic audience.

Paul Lewis tours Brahms and Beethoven for Musica Viva until September 12