Paul Lewis brings a beautiful golden sound and fresh, interesting interpretations to everything he plays. In an interview on this site three years ago (reposted here) he noted: “I’d like to think in another ten years that I would play more Bach in public.” Thankfully we did not have to wait that long, as he began Sunday’s Celebrity Series concert at Jordan Hall with some magnificent Bach, followed by Beethoven, Chopin and Weber.
As always it all goes back to Bach, in this instance his Partita No. 1 in B-flat Major, BWV 825. In Lewis’ reading, the suite became a small oratorio, dramatic and nearly operatic. He took the Praeludium (lit. “before the game”) at a moderate tempo, dignified and stately, feeling almost like an overture. The Allemande, with a bit more connecting pedal, embodied the expressive character of a graceful and lyrical aria, the repeat of the b phrase more reflective than its first statement. A light-spirited Corrente followed, running fluidly, as though introducing a new, more decisive protagonist, with a lively, rhythmic bass. The ensuing Sarabande sounded gorgeously solitary, again remarkably aria-like in its expressive depth. The two contrasting voices entered into dialogue in Menuets I and II, in turns persuasive and reluctant, until doubts dissolved; the piece concluded with a joyful and life-affirming gigue.
The fourth and grandest of Beethoven’s so-called “Grande Sonates,” the E-flat Major, Op. 7, unfolds on an epic scale and is often described as symphonically conceived; only the Hammerklavier exceeds it in length. Lewis made a surprising but convincing case that the sonata goes beyond symphonic and is in actuality Beethoven’s greatest opera, as complex in its expressive range and insight into human folly and fate as Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Lewis gave the first movement Allegro molto con brio a marvelously picaresque interpretation, creating an opening aria full of mischief, self-deprecation, boasting, bitterness, grit—voicing the resourcefulness of a trampled but defiant rascal who must deal with pompous idiots, human folly, lust and greed. He mesmerized the audience, and the enthusiasm was palpable.
The second movement largo conveyed a more tragic and heroic atmosphere of existential isolation. Lewis brought out the mysterious and repeated treble “call” to great effect, suggesting courage in the face of fate and inevitable loss. In the ensuing allegro, a battle emerged between two voices, the first of extraordinary freshness, hope and joy, the second threatening, muscular, stormy and insatiable, opposing a love as strong as death to a destructiveness as strong as love. The final rondo blossomed into a full duet, which Lewis made absolutely riveting, gathering light and darkness in equal measures as it barreled towards its inevitable demise. The final cadence—a whimper, not a bang—shone with a very special radiance.
The program did not list the specific Chopin waltzes being performed, so Lewis himself told us that he would play Op. 34, No. 2, Op. 70, No. 2 and Op. 64, No. 1. Once again, his piano possessed all of the expressiveness of the human voice. The Waltz in A Minor burst into a passionate aria pouring out an excess of emotion—expressing not only what is ineffable but what is forbidden. He endowed the Waltz in F Minor with the power of a lament; the Waltz in D-flat Major sang the beauty of all that is ephemeral. Of all three, Lewis made vast miniatures, dense and detailed as any Schubert Lied.
Chopin praised Carl Maria von Weber as he did few of his predecessors. Weber finished his Sonata No. 2 in A-flat Major, Op. 39 at a relatively happy time in his life, having moved to Berlin with his opera singer fiancée, Caroline Brandt. It is a virtuoso work, with operatic musical lines and drama, lyrical themes and stormy outbursts, a popular performance piece in the first half of the 20th century but largely neglected since then. As Lewis noted from the stage, this sonata began the development of the Romantic style years ahead of its time (Chopin was 6 years old when it was completed). Lewis brought to light all of the prefigurations of Chopin and Schumann, but he also evoked key Romantic themes: the wanderer, the interplay of anguish and yearning, the privileging of unpredictable emotion, and the way in which music becomes a source of self-discovery in real time.
The packed house responded with unrestrained applause and convinced Lewis to give us one brief encore, the Schubert Allegretto in C Minor D915.