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Ionarts-at-Large: Paul Lewis' Beethoven Overshadowed by Bartók's Bluebeard

available at AmazonLvB, Piano Concertos,
Paul Lewis / Bělohlávek / BBC SO
Harmonia Mundi
available at AmazonB.Bartók, A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára,
Zhidkova, White / Gergiev / LSO
LSO Live
available at AmazonB.Bartók, A Kékszakállú Herceg Vára,
Kallisch, Fried / Eötvös / SWR RSO Stuttgart

Liverpudlian pianist Paul Lewis and Oxfordian conductor Daniel Harding teamed up with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for Beethoven’s Fifth Concerto—part of the whole cycle of Beethoven’s five concertos the BRSO plays this season. (Francesco Piemonetsi, stepping in for Murray Perahia has already played the Fourth; András Schiff, Maria João Pires, and Mitsuko Uchida have yet to appear.) From one of the most talented and tasteful British musicians—judging, until now, only from his many fine recordings for Harmonia Mundi—it is difficult not to expect more than was delivered, though. However tenuous the idea is, one expects a sense of occasion, something ‘special’… something more than a performance that admittedly impressed with unfussy, very fluent playing (occasionally banged notes of exaggerated contrast aside), but also threw in two parts out of three autopilot.

Part of the frustratingly ambivalent experience was Paul Lewis’ extraordinarily dense sound for anything forte and above. Like a recording with a compressed dynamic range, there was no air around the notes, no room for true peaks to kick in. A strange mix of very good and perplexingly unpleasant proceeded from this, not much helped by Lewis constant grunting and Harding’s squealed breathing and singing. The outright beautiful second movement was a relief of cool nuance, with Lewis’ strengths that evening coming out best and the oddities least. The sound image of the orchestra meanwhile was nicely detailed, with a few moments of faux surprise thrown in here and there.

Not an ideal start into the night, but better things were in store. It started with Paul Lewis’ encore: an angry Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor, played as if it were Beethoven, with playfulness, brutality, coyness, and daring moments of dissonance all in direct proximity. And then there was Bela Bartók’s “Bluebeard’s Castle”, of course. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a bad performance of this, but that largely speaks to the efficacy of Bartók’s writing, which is—if you can get accustomed to the thorns—evocative, bordering lush, and cinematic like no other work of Bartók’s. And it works equally well staged or as a concert performance (not that much difference, really).

The last performance I heard—with the Munich Philharmonic under Hartmut Haenchen (Lioba Braun, Rudolf Rosen) in June of 2008—was probably the best so far, but this came very close. Where the orchestra and singers then offered warmer hues and more color, the BRSO under Harding (the first performance of his I found unequivocally excellent) and soloists (mezzo Elena Zhidkova and baritone Gábor Bretz; Pál Mácsai was the speaker) were made of sterner stuff. Especially Mme. Zhidkova—willowy, lithe and tawny— reminded me of the time I first heard Ekaterina Sementchuk. Her voice is not just huge and immediately present at any dynamic level, but is so without any sense of pushing. There was a determined ease about how she filled the Herkulessaal with that sonorous voice that works within many shades of one color. Not unlike her healthy dark baritone colleague Bretz, but bigger. It was the kind of performance that will have made a couple new converts to Bluebeard, and perhaps Bartók generally.

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