Music that is better than it can be played
Zankel Hall, Carnegie Hall
Joseph Haydn: Piano Sonatas in C Major, Hob.XVI:50, & in G major, Hob.XVI:40
Ludwig van Beethoven: Bagatelles, opus 126
Johannes Brahms: Klavierstücke, opus 118
Paul Lewis (Pianist)
(© Jack Liebeck)
In today’s music world, the British pianist Paul Lewis is slowly but surely achieving the enviable position of “musician’s musician”, a position that not so long ago was held by such as Alfred Brendel, who was one of Lewis’ mentors and whose influence is often as much seen as heard in his performances. His last recital at Zankel Hall was a case in point: a thoughtful program of echt classics like Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, with an unusual casing of Haydn sonatas at each end of the recital. It is obvious for even the less experienced listener that each composer was influenced by the previous one: Beethoven learned a lot from Haydn (without the abundant admission of that fact), then Beethoven himself had perhaps the greatest influence on Brahms.
Two of the Haydn piano sonatas demonstrated his well-known wit and humor, perhaps a tad less obvious than we hear in his string quartets or symphonies, and one would conceivably expect that the Beethoven work would continue in this vein. Here the set of Six Bagatelles op. 126, his last work for the piano, and for me about the strongest psychological profile of the composer, complimented another set of six pieces, one of the valedictory compositions of Brahms. And then we came back to the lighter vein with the two movements of Haydn’s Sonata in G major, first one bucolic and lighthearted in lilting 6/8 time and the second, a synthesis fun, wittiness, virtuosity and dramatic pauses which Mr. Lewis explored to the hilt.
The Sonata in C major which opened the program belongs to the trilogy of the last sonatas, though not the last compositions of Haydn. It was composed in London for the gifted pianist and teacher Therese Bartolozzi, who could obviously tackle the difficulties of the piano writing. This sonata also took advantage of the new pianos available to Haydn: in the first movement there is a rare reference to a muted pedal, something that must have intrigued the composer. On a modern piano it sounds a little hazy, but we can’t blame the messenger for executing what’s in the score. What was, however, more troubling in the very same movement was a different type of haziness caused perhaps by an unnecessarily fast tempo. That also caused an unusual (for this artist) sense of matter-of-factness. But songfulness returned in the large scale, majestic Adagio, which was first published as a separate piece: talk about 18th Century recycling! The fun and humor was at hand in the final Allegro molto, again with Haydn’s typical stop-and-go romp.
As I mentioned earlier, I always felt that Beethoven’s Bagatelles op. 126 are very much his self-portrait and constantly oscillate between ferocity and tenderness. That is most visible in the even numbered pieces, especially in the most dramatic, fierce and brutal Bagatelle No. 4 in B minor. Yet throughout the set I was missing that fierceness and sense of engagement, of beautiful phrasing: it all sounded as if this music didn’t mean all that much to the pianist, but that might only be my own lack of objectivity.
The situation did not improve significantly in the Brahms set. The famous Intermezzo in A major (a piece teeming with emotions), I feel that the valedictorian aspect of this music needs not to hide the composer’s audible passions – here it sounded polite but also borderline uninvolved. Some beautiful inner voices were barely alluded to. In the Ballade in G minor, I felt the energy was sapped out of the pianist and strangely it came close to, as I sometimes refer to music making, “playing about nothing”. There are so many details in the bass line and they were nowhere to be found. The Intermezzo in F minor didn’t convince me either: the tempo seemed too rushed was to show the mystery of that miniature and as a result it became shapeless. The crowning piece of the set is of course the last Intermezzo in E flat minor, and here Mr. Lewis came closer to the ideal of demonstrating what may very well be a sad yet still passionate farewell. Is it to life or a reminiscence of some former love affair we will not know, but in my book there are very few equally gloomy, depressing compositions in the Romantic era. I realize that my somewhat negative impressions were created in equal measure by a perception of lack of warmth in Mr. Lewis’ approach combined with the rather dismal qualities of the acoustics in a venue that permits almost no one to create a beautiful sound: while there are some seats in Zankel Hall that allow one to hear the acoustical bloom, reviewers seem to never get those seats. If we add to that that steady accompaniment of the subway rumble which the music is not able to mask, the reviewer’s otherwise positive impression may be diminished.
The last piece on the program, as if to dispel the gloom of Brahms, was the two movement Haydn Sonata in G major, whose tempo indication for the first movement is Allegretto innocente: that alone indicates a serene, agreeable character of music which this time was masterful conveyed by our pianist. I already mentioned that the concluding Presto was all one could want from that maniacal score. Mr. Lewis was graceful, witty – those taking hands off the keyboard! –, charming and demonstrated excellent finger work. The audience erupted in loud shouts of appreciation and this time it was very much deserved.
There was only one encore: Schubert lovely Allegretto in C minor played in a simple and tender manner.
That evening there were two other important pianistic events: upstairs in the Stern Auditorium, Daniil Trifinov, the young darling of American audiences, performed his own Piano Concerto with Mariinsky Orchestra (when I heard this concerto on YouTube I thought I had discovered a new composer named Trifmaninov), while at the 92 Street Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall another Brit, the still very young and immensely talented Benjamin Grosvenor offered a recital, in which coincidentally he also played late Brahms, his Opus 119. The fact that, having such a choice of attending any of these events, I chose Mr. Lewis can only be a sign of my deeply felt respect and admiration for his artistry based on many previous New York encounters. The fact that this time, to paraphrase Larry David, my enthusiasm was “more curbed” than usual is not going to change my generally positive perception of this musician.