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Paul Lewis's Beethoven: Fresh and Serious Fun

By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 14, 2005; Page C05

The young British pianist Paul Lewis, who played an all-Beethoven recital at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater on Saturday afternoon, is a musician welling over with ideas, most of them bracing and original.

Lewis has discerned the great secret of Beethoven -- namely, that when the composer was not storming the heavens in high Romantic frenzy, he could be a charming, funny and delightfully informal companion. Never is this more true than in the three piano sonatas written in the summer of 1802 and published as Op. 31.

The style of pianist Paul Lewis differs markedly from that of his mentor, Alfred Brendel. (Alvaro Yanez)

It was a miserable time for Beethoven -- his deafness was increasingly severe and he feared for his sanity. And yet these sonatas -- especially the first and the third in the series -- are as insouciant and comical as anything by Rossini. The Adagio Grazioso in Op. 31, No. 1, for example, with its half-tipsy melody, its loopy trills and exaggerated finger slides, might have been written for Chico Marx, while the closing Rondo melds sturdy, tuneful assertion with kittenish delicacy.

The Allegro that begins Op. 31, No. 3, can never quite decide what key it wants to be in, and its opening theme would sound quite at home on a kazoo. The Scherzo races by on spider legs; the finale combines pastoral and martial impulses in a sustained cognitive dissonance that would later be elaborated upon, much less gracefully, by such grimly determined smirkers as Mahler and Prokofiev.

Had Lewis not been announced as a protege of Alfred Brendel, the relationship likely would have gone unnoticed. But that is one sign of a great teacher and it is much to Brendel's credit that he has nurtured a pianist so different from himself. Although both men are highly and unapologetically intellectual, Brendel's ideas tend to be rather austerely bookish, while Lewis casts forth his intellect with a sense of cosmic play.

Brendel and Lewis share one other pianistic trait and that is a seeming disinterest in making pretty sounds. There was very little of the stereotypical "lush, burnished singing tone" that Glenn Gould used to speak of so dismissively. Lewis teases the keyboard; he pounces on it, springs from it, hammers it -- at times, he almost slaps it. All this is often very effective, but it rarely results in the pianistic equivalent of bel canto.

There are many compensations -- so many, indeed, to make one a little ashamed of the conventional quibbles that occasionally passed through the mind. Lewis seems incapable of playing anything in a bland or nerveless fashion. His sense of meter is infinitely elastic, and yet the pieces hold together organically. One almost had the sense that Lewis could have stopped in mid-passage, walked offstage for a minute or two, come back and resumed playing without ever losing the thread of the music entirely. He is the musician as master storyteller, and he keeps our eager attention.

In addition to the three Op. 31 sonatas, the program contained the short, sweet, rarely played Sonata in F-sharp, Op. 78, built as a complimentary diptych -- a prelude and afterword.

This was another in the outstanding series of programs known collectively as the Patrick and Evelyn Swarthout Hayes Piano Series, produced by the Washington Performing Arts Society.

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