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 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?