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BSO, Lewis, Kendall: Concerti and Sparks


Hannah Kendall (Robert Torres photo)

Sparks flew as the creative arc of Paul Lewis’s Beethoven project connected with us. The October 19th evening program opened with an orchestral piece by the London native Hannah Kendall and started a three-day traversal of Beethoven concerti with another Brit at the keyboard.

Hannah Kendall’s Sparks and Strikes took a story of an early worker’s rights movement and subjected it to a rather ambivalent treatment. The 1888 matchgirls’ strike at a London phosphorus saturated factory evoked a juxtaposition of chemical menace and social forces for good.

The jagged melodic lines ― standing in turn for both the threat of explosive chemicals and for the anxiety of the women undertaking a dangerous action for their rights ― told the story rather persuasively. More graphical than colorist, the piece held attention and pleased the ear. Call me simple-minded for connecting matches with smokes, but I kept thinking about Bizet’s similarly sharp edged cigarières scenes, another narrative about strong women, albeit one penned in a different era.

The graphical, almost cinematic power of the narrative lingered on stage, as the orchestra reshuffled, though barely reducing forces, setting up for Beethoven’s Op. 15 concerto in C Major.  As the epic orchestral introduction unfolded, I had a chance to observe a static profile of Paul Lewis. I noticed for the first time just how much he resembles the actor Rufus Sewell, whose memorable roles included Lord Melbourne, a voice of reason and support in the Young Victoria period drama. Not that I needed any voiceover to get in the mood, but the fledgling imperial spirit of the introduction came with a suitable visual.

Paul Lewis (Robert Torres photo)

Paul Lewis already had a chance to please the Tanglewood crowd with his traversal of Beethoven’s concertos, but let’s be honest: Symphony Hall provides a much better opportunity to physically hear it. The evening presented the Englishman’s magical gift of musical drama in its full glory. Every solo carried a strong imprint of personal emotions. When recalling the lyrical second theme on the piano, Lewis played an F natural instead of F sharp ― I will count on specialists to correct me if this is just an editorial choice ― but in any case, it only added to the emotional and idiosyncratic mood.

Lewis’s phrasing kept the audience in thrall throughout the first movement. He played the shortest of Beethoven’s cadenzas, and its powerful delivery sounded less personal and more straightforward, as if leaving the spotlight on the composer and leaving a humble disclaimer: all of the improvisations here are Beethoven’s, not mine.

The Largo touched with the same beautiful phrasing, but again, with some restraint. The soulful piano tune accompanied by pizzicato strings received a straightforward delivery, free of swooning. Rondo sparkled with virtuosic and muscular episodes, fully engaging but also reminding me about my old conundrum about the minor key episodes, more on which later. Somewhat humorous retreat of the piano from the center stage in the finale added a good deal of mirth to the overall musical feast.

In the orchestral exposition of the Concerto in C Minor Op.37, Nelsons successfully claimed some of the drama with well-articulated orchestral phrases. Lewis entered powerfully and deployed his subtly varying tempi to great effect. In contrast with a straightforward cadenza of opus 15, Beethoven’s familiar cadenza in the first movement of 3rd concerto lingered in the limelight in its full glory. Not only could one visualize the young composer improvising from his sheet of scribbles, one could also hear the emergence of pianistic styles of the coming generation, and the narrative power of Lisztian rumbles. At its climax, the craftily pedaled piano was exuding a powerful and still somewhat harmonious soup of notes, with great dramatic effect. I had often failed to relate fully to the third concerto with its overt titanism; this time it made a great deal of sense.

The slow movement started with a breath-stopping contemplative piano solo and developed into a fantastic dialog with the orchestra, as it sparkled with solos by flute and bassoon, adding a persuasive emotional touch to the narrative. The finale’s short cadenza episode felt spontaneous; it was a great collaboration of the pianist and the conductor. Lewis then delivered a powerful final stroke, slightly exaggerated and fully satisfying.

The review proper ends here, with ecstatic crowd expressing appreciation, and Nelsons’s flagging the woodwinds and brass players, but I return to the memories of the C Major concerto. Many years ago, I found a Melodiya LP of it, recorded on this very stage with Richter at the piano and Munch on the podium, in a discount bin in a small store of a provincial Russian town. I paid 10 kopeks for it, which through the magic of exchange rates and inflation, translates to about one tenth of a penny. Bargain of the century, I had thought, but I left it behind in 1987 on departing the Soviet Union for good. That performance would not let go of me that easily, however. It reappeared as a better bargain still, when I was thrilled to pick up an original RCA pressing for zero pennies, as part of a big stash of LPs sitting on an Allston curb. Richter’s emotive delivery of the frantic minor key episodes in the rondo stuck with me. Are they really as comical as the convention goes, or is it the lament of a vulnerable Pierrot, repeatedly beaten up by Arlecchino and deserving some compassion?

Victor Khatutsky has written for the Intelligencer since 2014. He also interests himself in genomics and the poetry of Boris Pasternak.


11 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This?

    Comment by David Moran — October 20, 2023 at 2:53 pm

  2. Yes, I believe this is the one that RCA published. There is also a live recording from the SH the day before.

    Comment by Victor K — October 20, 2023 at 4:21 pm

  3. Yes – I also took note of the F# to F change. I verified in my 50-year-old Schirmer/Kullak edition that F# is printed, and I didn’t in a limited YouTube search find anyone else who played F natural there (even Lewis himself with BBC/Belohlavek). Then I considered the top end of the typical instrument in the late 18th century – the same F natural. In fact, other than the various 1st movement cadenzas (which I believe were written somewhat later), there are no other written notes beyond the F natural. Obviously by the time of the 3rd concerto this was no longer a limitation.

    Comment by Gerry — October 20, 2023 at 5:49 pm

  4. Here is a link where you can find “first editions” of the score:

    These have F# in the piano part (page 14 or thereabouts).

    But I found an early edition (1801) of the piano part here:

    That has F natural on page 5. F natural was the highest note of the five-octave piano. We can have discussions about which was Beethoven’s intention.

    I don’t have to tell the Beethoven-loving pianists here about the high F sharp and low E natural, each of which is just one note outside of the range of that piano, on the very first page of the D major sonata Op. 10 number 3. They are not written in the original edition but most of us play them anyway. Likewise a couple of notes in the Op. 11 piano trio.

    Comment by Mark Lutton — October 20, 2023 at 8:58 pm

  5. Just a word about Hannah Kendall’s work, The Sparks Catchers (which I heard on Friday). Like you, I thought of Bizet — even though the musical idiom had no similarity. It occurs to me that what Kendall achieves with this short, riveting work is deeper and broader than the surface content. She evokes women as “guardians of Fire”, responsible both for kindling fire and for protecting the community from its danger. And the work, in itself, brings Fire to life and contains its dangerous sparks. I found it quite impressive.

    Comment by Ashley — October 21, 2023 at 9:17 am

  6. On Friday, the orchestra was too loud in the first movement and the first half of the second movement of No. 2. The word “coarse” actually came to mind. They should have dialed it down two notches. They also drowned out the soloist in the loud final notwes of both concerti. I was sitting in the front row of the second balcony almost above the piano, and I could see that he was playing, but I couldn’t hear the notes. Balance, Maestro Nelsons.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 21, 2023 at 5:56 pm

  7. You can hear Paul Lewis talk about the F natural / F-sharp issue in the interview at this page:

    Comment by Brian McCreath — October 23, 2023 at 9:44 am

  8. If the F natural and F sharp issue is not resolved before I die, I will remain (in death) a deeply disturbed corpse !!! All kidding aside, I do find it perplexing that anyone is that concerned about what I believe to be a somewhat trivial matter. Albeit, to some it may be an interesting technical issue but really, who cares. Instead, let’s just actually “try to see the forest for the trees” and listen and enjoy this masterpiece. This Beethoven piano concerto (like all the other Beethoven piano concertos) is absolutely beautiful, so we need to simply embrace what we are so blessed and fortunate to hear.

    Comment by David M Grahling — October 23, 2023 at 11:45 am

  9. I also was at Friday’s matinee, and agree with Mr. Whipple’s positive impressions of Ms. Kendall’s Spark Catchers. That made Mr. Nelson’s tepid realization all the more disturbing. His conducting was absolutely wooden and mechanical, strictly by the numbers, and in a piece that was not at all difficult for the orchestra. Every natural ‘sizzling’ gesture fell flat; the many sharp dynamic contrasts went unregarded. Fast tempi were flaccid while slow were tepid; the many textural sparks were blunt. I encourage a listen to the world premiere performance It was embarrassing to see our home town team do injustice to such a vibrant piece.

    Comment by Mark Dirksen — October 23, 2023 at 7:02 pm

  10. Given that some of the very earliest printings have F# and some have F natural, has anyone checked Beethoven’s manuscript? Did the printer of the piano part change F# to F natural because most pianos didn’t have the F#? Or did the printers of the full scores change F natural to F# because pianos with extra keys were the coming thing?

    Comment by Mark Lutton — October 23, 2023 at 7:13 pm

  11. Take a look at Bruce Brubaker’s little essay that considers Beethoven’s changed orchestration in the “F-natural“ passage.

    Comment by Clara — October 24, 2023 at 8:02 am

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