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Paul Lewis's Beethoven Cycle

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Piano Sonatas, vol. 2 (op. 106, inter alia), Paul Lewis

(released on January 16, 2007)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901903.05

available at Amazon
Beethoven, Piano Sonatas, vol. 4 (op. 10, inter alia), Paul Lewis

(released on May 13, 2008)
Harmonia Mundi HMC 901909.11

Online scores:
Beethoven, Op. 10, no. 1 | Op. 10, no. 2 | Op. 10, no. 3 | Op. 106 ("Hammerklavier")
The third volume of Paul Lewis's complete cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas came under review last year. The rest of the cycle, including the latest volume to be released (no. 4, from a year ago), has become some of my favorite listening where the Beethoven sonatas are concerned. If you can stand the occasional humming and singing, Lewis's interpretation has become to my ears a welcome antidote to the sometimes overly harsh and mannered cycle of András Schiff. When preparing to review another pianist playing the Beethoven sonatas, as with Till Fellner's continuing Washington Beethoven cycle last night (review forthcoming), it tends to be my preparatory listening.

The fecundity of Lewis's ideas for the early and middle sonatas provide admirable variety of musical approaches and continue to prompt me to reconsider long-held ideas about how the Beethoven sonatas should sound. Perhaps they should not always be played so savagely, and perhaps all those forceful dynamic markings do not need to be realized hyperbolically. The leggiero flourishes in the slow movement of op. 10/1 are so lacy, and even the loudest fortissimo chords do not seem to overwhelm the instrument, making the comic contrasts of the rondo of op. 10/3 more witty than manic. Lewis does tend to exaggerate the slower movements, like a somewhat lugubrious Allegretto second movement in op. 10/2 and a glacial Largo e mesto second movement of op. 10/3 (more static than sad).

Where Lewis's cycle has less success is in the late sonatas, especially the daunting op. 106, the große Sonate intended, as the subtitle says, "für das Hammerklavier," referring to the instrument not by its potential for playing loud and soft (pianoforte) but for the violent nature of its sound-producing action. The piece is booby-trapped with technical pitfalls, especially extensive inner-voice trills and intricate contrapuntal structures displaced far over the keyboard, requiring finger dexterity and intellectual acumen more than the brute strength that the subtitle might seem to imply, although there are plenty of large chords spread over ninths and tenths, too. Lewis loses some of his accustomed grace, mastering the work's demands but without the fluency and facility heard in the earlier sonatas. Some pianists can make up for that sense of desperation with bombast and dramatic flair, but that does not seem to be Lewis's style.

1 comment:

mark said...

Any thoughts on how Lewis compares to Brendel's last cycle? I believe that Brendel was at one point Lewis's teacher.