András Schiff is in the midst of a daring live recording of the complete cycle of Beethoven's piano sonatas. Since one can never have too much Beethoven, it made sense to follow up on my reviews of the Schiff recordings with a few words about the latest installment in the Beethoven cycle by the British pianist Paul Lewis, among other things a student of Alfred Brendel's. Although he gave an all-Beethoven recital at the Kennedy Center in 2005, for whatever reason Ionarts did not review it.
Beethoven, Sonatas, Vol. 3 (nos. 1-4, 12-14, 22-23), Paul Lewis
(released October 9, 2007)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901906.08
Online Score, Complete Beethoven Sonatas (VARIATIONS Online Prototype, University of Indiana Music Library)
Schiff's Beethoven is pulse-driven, sharp-edged, and focused on the extravagant corners of the sonatas. By comparison, Lewis's touch is refined and more traditional. Who would have thought that so many of the Beethoven sonatas could be so pretty? This is not to say that Lewis cannot amp up the temperamental side of Beethoven, as he does in the Appassionata (op. 57), for example, or the last movement of op. 27, no. 2 (the so-called "Moonlight"). What Lewis does well, however, is remind us that Beethoven does not always conform to the irascible, hair-tossing madman stereotype. Lewis's gentle approach, removing almost all harshness from even the loudest attacks, underscores just how mordant Schiff's version can be.
Sometimes, this gentle approach is evident in the choice of tempo. The Allegro of no. 1's first movement is much more driven in Schiff's recording, while Lewis strikes a pleasing balance of speed and smoothness (which can be extraordinarily fast, as in the last two movements of no. 3, which are technically stunning). That memorable moment in Schiff's version of no.1's first movement, the popping sforzandi in the development (so fun to play), makes Lewis sound almost staid by comparison. Part of this one could chalk up to the difference in age, as Schiff intentionally waited to begin his cycle until he was 50 years old. That experience comes across in some of the eclectic choices that Schiff makes, as if he has searched for the least conventional approach in many of the sonatas, after considerable thought expended on each piece, as the liner notes make clear. Lewis offers excellent liner notes, too, by the French musicologist Jean-Paul Montagnier.
Paul Lewis's Beethoven:
In Lewis's win column, however, are the slow movements, which are often elegantly contained, while Schiff uses a narrower range of colors. Sonata for sonata, it was Lewis that has given more consistent enjoyment, with a steadier pulse (Schiff has a tendency toward idiosyncratic tempo distortions), but in some cases Schiff's reading was so compelling that Lewis seemed drab by comparison. One drawback from a close listening perspective is that Lewis hums (or audibly exhales) his way through many of the movements (faintly, in the background, but still). It is a bad habit, the effects of which the engineer may have been able to minimize, and it may bother other listeners less than it does me.
As for arrangement, Schiff's choice to present the sonatas in chronological order of composition has a certain logical appeal. However, by proceeding out of order, Lewis juxtaposes many sonatas of different periods, which is an arrangement not only easier on the listener (not all of the easy early sonatas or the knotty late sonatas in one batch) but points out some themes common across stylistic divisions. It also makes it a much better recommendation for a non-completist listener to buy a volume of Lewis's cycle over one of Schiff's.