April 28, 2010 / 12:21 PM / 7 years ago

Paul Lewis: Letting music speak for itself

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Paul Lewis isn’t a showy pianist, and there’s a reason for it.

“I wouldn’t try to put anything extra between me and the music and the audience,” the 37-year-old Liverpool native told Reuters during a break from his intense rehearsal schedule, preparing to be the first pianist to play all five Beethoven piano concertos over the course of one summer’s BBC Proms music extravaganza, at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

“I know some people like to go to a concert to see ‘so and so’, because it’s a kind of celebrity-orientated thing, but that doesn’t work for me, not when you’re dealing with music as great as this, that actually is always going to be more important than the performer who’s doing it.”

So, without ever mentioning the name, it’s clear that Lewis and Lang Lang, the Chinese-born piano superstar of the moment, who is known for his keyboard histrionics, are at opposite poles of the piano universe.

But it’s an accommodating universe, which if nothing else is demonstrated by the fact that Lewis, who grew up in a family where “country-lite” singer John Denver was the only music his father knew, became a protege of Alfred Brendel, the revered and highly cerebral retired dean of the piano world.

Nor is Lewis, who strikes a brooding pose on his album covers but is a charming family man at home in suburban London, without a fair measure of celebrity of his own.

His recording of the Beethoven piano sonatas on Harmonia Mundi (HMX 2901902.11) got rave reviews and was the 2008 record of the year for the British music magazine Gramophone.

A more recent recording, with tenor Mark Padmore, of Schubert’s bleak “Winterreise” (Harmonia Mundi HMU 907484), a harrowing cycle of songs about death that ends with the singer meeting up with the grim reaper in the person of a hurdy-gurdy man, has gotten excellent press.

Lewis’s performances in London’s gem music box venue Wigmore Hall are sell outs and he has begun forays into the U.S. market, playing a Mozart concerto at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, where he pronounced the acoustics to be “fantastic”, and more recently a recital at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

But he’s not likely to jump on the bandwagon for the rising number of audio-visual or staged performances of traditionally purely musical works after an encounter with a cawing stuffed crow deployed during a “Winterreise” in Frankfurt.

Here’s what he had to say about growing up in a non-musical family in Liverpool, what living with the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas intensely for two years of recording does to a bloke, and why that encounter with the crow left a bad taste:

Q: How does a person from a non-musical blue-collar family in Liverpool, which you describe as a city of real but “lovable roughness”, end up as a classical pianist and why didn’t you want to be John Lennon, like every Liverpudlian teenage boy?

A: “I didn’t think about it, it didn’t seem like a strange thing to do, I just loved it. I went to the local schools until I was 14 and I got quite a lot of piss-take (teasing) but...it didn’t really bother me. I knew there weren’t many people who this (classical music) did it for in the way it did it for me, but it genuinely didn’t bother me. I didn’t feel the need to fit in...and after a Liverpool Philharmonic concert I’d be on a high for days, I couldn’t get it out of my head.”

Q: Speaking of having something stuck in your head, what is it like living with the Beethoven piano sonatas for two years, and why does it seem like every pianist worth his or her salt has to tackle the whole body of them, sometimes two or three times in a career, as Brendel did?

A: “You’re dealing with one of the greatest piano composers, obviously...who’s left one of the most enormous and wide-ranging bodies of work for solo piano. The possibilities within it are endless and I think that, and that the 32 sonatas stand as one unit, one huge peak of the repertoire, I think that’s what everybody finds so attractive. The scope, the range of it is enormous and it’s something you can spend a good lifetime coming back to.”

Q: How different are the concertos, which you’ll be playing with different orchestras for the Proms which run from July through September? Are they just bigger, more bombastic, less intimate versions of the same thing?

A: “If you take the biggest and most bombastic, the Emperor Concerto (No. 5) it’s surprising, you get all this huge, epic symphonic stuff...but in addition there’s quite a lot of chamber-like writing, the piano playing with a single instrument, and there’s a lot of balancing that has to go on. ... These pieces never just go down one route, they’re always trying to catch you out.”

Q: And what about that crow in the Frankfurt “Winterreise”? One of the lieder is entitled “The Crow”, so a case could be made that Schubert had it coming.

A: “Eight years ago I did a staged version of Schubert song cycles at the Frankfurt Opera...but the director...was more interested in his concept, of adding things which would get a laugh. In ‘Die Krahe’ (The Crow, from Winterreise) ...there’s this very ethereal, ‘other-worldly’ music and at that point he had someone open a door and push a stuffed crow in and go ‘caa, caa’ -- and of course it got a laugh. So anyway, that was the end of that.”

(Paul Lewis plays the Beethoven piano concertos at the BBC Proms on July 21, July 29, August 6 and September 6)

Editing by Paul Casciato

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