Brighton Festival 2021 classical - Paul Lewis (piano)

REVIEW BY Richard Amey

Friday, 21st May 2021, 1:58 pm
Paul Lewis - Brighton Festival 2021

Brighton Festival 2021 classical - Paul Lewis (piano) at Brighton Dome Concert Hall, Tuesday 18 May, first performance of two (4pm & 8pm). Mozart, Piano Sonata on A major K331; Scriabin, Five Preludes Op74; Musorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition. One hour, no interval.

The Festival’s second live indoor concert in two days since Covid-19 Pandemic lockdowns began in March 2020. Permitted audience: 250 (Dome seating capacity is 1,700), 66% sold across both Paul Lewis concerts at this initial stage of national lockdown lift on socially distanced indoor concerts.

Masks mandatory, one-way routes. Seating bookable in household groups, sitting together. In the raised-area stalls and upstairs, two empty seats separate those occupied by individuals or groups. Cabaret table-seating on auditorium floor accessed by temporary stairs.

Audience registered for Search and Trace in the queue outside, hand sanitisation and temperature test inside the door, tickets check and bag search (max size A3) in entrance hall. Toilets in use. No cloakroom. Bar serving pre-concert orders only. Social distancing everywhere.

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It will be new to his fans to find this Liverpool pianist co-leading his British generation and moving into Russian territory from his accustomed Europe of Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Schubert and Liszt. There are the invisible identity badges on the jacket Paul Lewis sheds from his stand-up collar shirts to skip onto the stage towards the piano stool.

Of his 21 record releases, only one has so far deviated from that core repertoire of sonatas, concertos and song cycles: in 2015, the Robert Schumann Opus 17 Fantasy and the Pictures at an Exhibition repainted by Musorgsky. Lewis is not yet sought after for these two composers or for music fettered by framework. If this is his next career phase, interesting development lies ahead.

His six minutes of Scriabin today showed Lewis exploring a very different environment and adjusting in front of his audience to different, new mindset. His half-hour art gallery tour further revealed to us a man de-shackling.

He had opened with Mozart, a composer we don’t yet associate wholly with him, but no surprise regarding this pianist’s mentorship by Alfred Brendel, our deepest living Mozart performing authority since becoming the first to record all the piano concertos. In this age of fortepiano sound awareness and espousal, unsurprisingly Lewis presented as a Brendel descendent in letting Mozart speak in sophisticated modern grand piano voice.

Lewis’s K331 therefore, although his melodic decorations were sprightly, jocular and perky, had no extreme, dry and studied-authentic crispness. And his use of the sustaining pedal in the Minuetto trio made Mozart seem to script early Beethoven – although the latter was still a child when this Sonata was born. With all Beethoven’s concertos, sonatas and the Diabelli Variation firmly in his can, that smacked of Lewis still blooded in Ludwig van. But far more interesting and striking was his overall offering of this three-movement sonata in one full sweep.

Mozart’s directions include only one tempo – Andante grazioso, Minuetto, Rondo alla Turca. So from his opening variation so graceful it cried out for ballet, Lewis had the option to be always moving, onward transiting through the movements, scarcely pausing, in a joined-up, almost consistent tempo. The Turkish Rondo was barely an acceleration but still it continued the search for different colour Lewis seemed unsentimentally committed to in the previous movements. And as the Turkish skit climaxed, his hands left us in no doubt we were hearing marching band triangle and cymbals.

His Scriabin, begun after first leaving the stage, seemed at first to be unfavourably brushed with the continuing momentum of his Mozart, being more restless and disturbed than Scriabin’s French musical direction of ‘Painful, heartbreaking’ for the opening Prelude. No 2, ‘Very slow, contemplative’, was given an ominous swinging pendulum by the Lewis left-hand and more like signs of distress by his right.

The ‘Allegro drammatico’ was quite downplayed and more like an agitating problem suddenly solved. ‘Slow, vague, undecided’ came as an unhappy walk around a garden cheered up on discovery of lilac newly in bloom. The concluding ‘Proud, warlike’ brought us promising glimpses of colour – as in the foregoing four, all too briefly.

Scriabin has ambitious compositional aims but pianists enjoy his scope to grab the moment in the notes and spin one’s own spontaneity. The scale and purpose of these Preludes put mein the mind of Webern’s Five Orchestral Pieces.

Lewis took the applause and embarked immediately on Musorgsky with a Promenade champing at the bit to get at the pictures, as though someone ahead in the queue was causing an infuriating holdup. Instead of the Gnome stopping the picture viewer dead in his tracks, it leapt from the picture frame and ran out everywhere across the gallery. Lewis projected neurotic, impish and incessant movement – but later, also the later probability an unhappy soul beneath the grotesque visage.

The exhibition visitor seemed unshaken, albeit bemused. After the Castle’s singing minstrel and his hurdy gurdy, Lewis’ promenader seemed hankering for action. Further on, after the Polish Jews’ exchange, one dogmatic, imperious, the other too pathetic for him to tolerate, Lewis’ visitor character walked off rightly annoyed.

Describing this ever-changing demeanour in the gallery viewer exemplified Lewis’ attention to detail and a creation of narrative beyond concentration on the pictures themselves. It extended the dimension of this performance and raised expectancy.

Live performances of this work inevitably carry rougher edges than studio-smoothed recordings and Lewis, when live, will probably be seeking to refine his delivery of the loudest music. His Polish farm cart passed by with absurdly brutal power, but its axles were too well-oiled, the Lewis oxen were in top form and too effortlessly conquering the clinging mud– although his Bydlo receding into the far, far distance was a long and fine diminuendo.

There was a little too much unconvincing fierceness, too, in the releasing of the deep and technically challenging catacomb resonances, despite a promising start. And the Great Gate of Kiev offers a definitive challenge for the player to achieve strength and impact without harshness – a task Lewis has in progress.

One of the things making this a standout masterwork is the originality and fantasy in the anti-Russian musical establishment piano writing and in the quality and abundance of its scherzos – Gnomus, Tuileries, The Unhatched Chicks, Limoges Market, Baba Yaga. Here, alongside his keyboard colouring, is where Lewis may feel his virtuosity will mark out his interpretation when he steps up the gas and the risk factor. That, too, needs work I sense he will relish putting in, and we, in time, may thrill to its results.

Richard Amey