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Paul Lewis explores classical fantasy in a New Jersey church

New York
Ridgewood (West Side Presbyterian Church)
01/19/2020 -  & January 5 (Erl), March 20 (São Paulo), April 1 (Lugano), 3 (Bilbao), 28 (Southampton), May 15 (Chipping Campden), June 14 (Whitehaven), August 27 (Schwarzenberg), 2020
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonatas No. 13 in E-flat major, Op. 27, No. 1, & No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 – Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77
Franz Schubert: Sonata in G major, D. 894, Op. 78

Paul Lewis (pianist)

P. Lewis (© Linda Holt)

At 47, Paul Lewis may be too young to be legendary, but it’s just a matter of time.

On January 19, the Liverpool-born pianist performed four solo works—three sonatas and one sonata-like flight of fancy—as part of the Parlance Chamber Concerts in the West Side Presbyterian Church in Ridgewood, New Jersey. This modern church has phenomenally warm acoustics that seem to be designed with Beethoven in mind, drawing a series of world-class musicians to its halls for this series.

The theme of the program was the fantasy, and its expression during the final years of the classical era. These are not the free romantic fantasies of Schumann and Liszt, nor the more cerebral phantasy with a “ph»of Benjamin Britten, but rather fantasies that creep out of the classical sonata forms of their antecedents, Haydn and Mozart. If anything, they harken back to the earlier fantasies of Bach and Telemann which give artists permission to improvise from the heart as well as from the mind.

The program opened with Beethoven’s Sonata in E-flat major, the half-forgotten step-sister of the more famous “Moonlight” Sonata. From the first gentle chords in E-flat in the right hand, mirrored by scampering 16th notes in the left, Lewis engaged our attention and never let go. Influenced by the composer’s stormy image, many pianists feel they must pound Beethoven into the keys, but Lewis has a way of drawing him out, with a technique that appears—but, of course, is not—effortless.

The creamy tone of the Steinway, combined with Lewis’s composure and thoughtful brilliance, delivered a Beethoven that was a revelation, a great start for his 250th anniversary year. In all three works by this composer (I will discuss the Schubert further on), Lewis’s command of dynamics was particularly ear-catching. In the case of a crescendo, he has a way of giving the impression that a key, once depressed, is swelling and receding in volume on its own. This is an impossibility, but the effect is there, and contributes to the sense Lewis imparts that the sound we are hearing has a life of its own, and he is there to contain it and keep it from flying away.

The E-flat Sonata moves lithely from movement to movement without a break. In the second movement, Lewis identifies and emphasizes the lovely melody floating above a stream of relentless triplets. His touch is sure, his approach never showy or bombastic, and yet, the capacity audience sat transfixed, scarcely breathing through the entire late afternoon performance. The sonata ends in a cascade of tonal arcs, feeling a bit like the rainbow of sound at the end of the “Waldstein” Sonata sometime later in Beethoven’s career. There is a long silence—long even for the silence-loving Beethoven—and a relaxed return to the main theme.

In all the works on this program, Lewis is true to the composers’s intentions as expressed in the scores. This is especially evident in the most well-known work—or at least first movement—on the program, the second “Quasi una fantasia” sonata of Op. 27, the “Moonlight”. Lewis brought a depth and sense of discovery to this familiar work that was almost like hearing it for the first time. Most impressive, without shocking listeners too much, was the integrated balance he achieved among the three movements. While the first movement for many artists is the entrée in this three-course musical feast, it passed quietly, serenely, like a beloved old friend under Lewis’s touch, but did not call undue attention to itself. The second movement was perhaps a bit bolder than we are commonly used to hearing it, creating a sense of delight. The tempestuous final movement was thrilling, but not ostentatious. This was one of the first performances I’ve heard in which I had a sense of all movements being equal and of a piece, telling a story that can only be expressed in tone. It is worth noting that Lewis’s technique in all three Beethoven selections was absolutely flawless, his hands miracles of precision, but his playing informed entirely by depth of thought and feeling, and with sincere reverence.

In between the two sonatas was Beethoven’s curious Fantasia in G minor. When we consider that Beethoven was regarded as the most impressive musical improviser of his time, his deafness beginning in his 20s is a doubly troubling tragedy. He could continue to compose without his hearing but was not able to continue as the leading pianist of his generation and perhaps the greatest piano improviser of all time.

While the two sonatas contain fantasy-like qualities within a classical form, the Op. 77 is all about freedom and surprise, wandering from the key of G minor into what would have been wild, uncharted key territories in 1809, when the composer was 38. It is indeed an engaging showcase in which to enjoy the composer’s inventiveness and bold ideas, gaining a sense of what it may have been like to hear Beethoven’s improvisations in his prime.

The program concluded with Schubert’s Sonata in G major, from 1826, which Robert Schumann later called a “fantasy sonata.” Critics and scholars have argued for decades as to whether this four-movement work is indeed an integrated sonata or a loose collection of piano pieces. The current thought leans to the former, though it is true that Schubert’s work and musical worldview is often at the intersection of the free-form and the classical tradition.

In this sonata, Lewis uncovers a universe of ideas and feelings in Schubert’s work, without adding or exaggerating to suit his own needs. His touch is sure, with brilliant upper notes that never grate or sound harsh, moving from lilting folk-like melodies to a wistful longing for some unnamed time or state. As was made clear by this concert, Lewis’s allegiance to the composer’s intensions and his own impeccable artistry make him one of the most illuminating pianists of his generation.

A performance of Lewis performing the Schubert (in 2014), though not containing the pianist’s most recent thoughts on the work, may be found at YouTube.

Linda Holt



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