Pianist Paul Lewis, and Beethoven, to the rescue

By SUSAN ISAACS NISBETT

(Ann Arbor, Nov. 21, 2015)

It came as a disappointment that pianist Leif Ove Andnes had to cancel his Nov. 20 University Musical Society recital at Hill Auditorium at the last minute – as in the day before – because of illness. An ear infection and virus prevented him from flying from San Francisco to reach us.

But UMS found someone who could fly, though it wouldn’t be easy, and play like a dream: English pianist Paul Lewis. UMS had wanted to snag him for a while, it appears, and he was willing to do the sort of dash that mileage-craving airline passengers do at year-end to reach their preferred elite-status tier.

He played at the Wimbeldon International Music Festival Thursday, took an early Friday flight from London to reach Ann Arbor by early afternoon, played his Friday concert, departed by car for Chicago directly after, and Saturday, if luck held, departed on an early flight home so he could get to Dublin for a Sunday recital. Wow! That’s moving at presto speed.

Some of his recital did that, too. His chosen program – played a few days earlier in New York at the White Light Festival – was the last three Beethoven sonatas, Opp. 109, 110 and 111, those pensive and still strange capstones of Beethoven’s 32 essays in the form. He chose to play them, as he did in New York, at one take, no intermission, and only brief pauses in between. Maybe it’s like keeping eating so you don’t know you’re full – or don’t realize you’re exhausted (it would have been 1 a.m. English time when he began playing). But there’s a good rationale for it. If Beethoven said he wrote the last three sonatas in a single breath, that is exactly how Lewis offered them. It made for exceptionally concentrated listening.

Occasionally the playing was as breathless as the format: phrases, particularly in faster movements, could elide just a bit too much, leaving punctuation marks absent. And Lewis’s pedaling often smudged boundaries, too, even though his playing was always very clear; fingers and facility are not issues.

On the other hand, in the slow movements of all three sonatas, Lewis’s playing was wonderfully expressive. He took his time within motives and phrases to point up peaks and valleys and make you ponder. The playing was dynamically and tonally stunning as well. Notes in the high treble could glisten like droplets of water falling into a still pool below. Trills were exquisite. And when Beethoven asked for song, Lewis sang like the most rarified of singers.

Hearing these sonatas at one take was a reminder of all they have in common, in form, shape and mood. Lewis excelled at bringing home just how, in these sonatas, motives and melodies seem to coalesce out of a mist of “unformed” material. He shed similar light on Beethoven’s explorations of the extremes of the keyboard. Here, the balances were finely calibrated, just as they were when the bass was a hive of activity against which the right hand had to project single-note melodies.

Unusally, Lewis was able to keep the audience quiet at the endings of the sonatas – he kept his hands on the keys — allowing the silence to be an equal part of the music, and thus permitting the music to settle.

It’s hard to know how or if to encore in a performance of these three towering works, but Lewis solved the issue with a sensitive performance of the Schubert Allegretto, D. 915. And then it was time to get out the door for the drive to Chicago and the flight to London. It was certainly a chock-a-block 70 minutes preceding.

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