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Thread: Paul Lewis Plays Beethoven

  1. #1
    Captain of Water Music
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    Paul Lewis Plays Beethoven

    A new year means it’s time for some new Beethoven recordings. I thought I’d start small and buy a single disc from one of the several on-going cycles. Paul Lewis is a pianist new to me. I’ve seen his name before, usually in reference to his Schubert recordings, but until now I hadn’t heard him. I’ve read mixed reviews of his Beethoven disc, but irrespective of that I figured it just made sense to give this newish disc a shot. After all, Mr Lewis saw fit to start his cycle with the critical Op 31 triumvirate. This would prove a good test, at least for me: if he botches it, I’m done; if he nails it, I’m hooked. I’m neither.

    First the first sonata. If one is interested in hearing what this disc is all about, one need only listen to the first few moments of 31/1. The opening starts with a decidedly middle of the road tempo, and it’s cleanly played and somewhat plain. These are more observations than criticisms, but there it is. Those seeking thrills and gratuitous virtuosic displays, or those looking for heavy-duty heroic period LvB should listen elsewhere. Lewis is one of those pianists who makes the listener come to him. If one does, one notices the subtle rubato and wonderfully controlled dynamic contrasts that mark the sonic landscape. His personal touches are usually not so obtrusive as to distract from the music, nor are they so subtle as to go unnoticed. One touch I don’t care for is the use of overly long pauses at the end of the opening movement. The second movement slows things down just a bit more, and unfortunately Lewis doesn’t sound as good here, at least initially. The long trills aren’t played crisply enough, and the left hand playing is a bit stodgy. As things progress, Lewis improves, and throughout one can detect just a whiff of mischief. It’s subdued, to be sure, but it’s there. Even in the more somber passages. The subsequent reappearances of the opening material become more animated and lively, and the trills pick up in quality, including some beefy low register trills around 9’ in. The final movement opens slower than I generally prefer, but that same almost subversive mischief is still there. Indeed, it’s there throughout the entire movement. It’s as though Lewis is leading the listener on, never quite letting loose, even though the listener knows he wants to, and even though – indeed, most likely because – Lewis knows the listener wants him to. Then, at the end, Lewis lets loose. I suppose one could alternatively hear the playing as somewhat lacking in gravity, but not me.

    The Tempest ends up sounding quite similar, and ultimately that dooms it to also-ran status. The problems start in the opening movement. The slightly broad overall tempo doesn’t necessarily hurt, though I can’t say it helps, but what definitely hurts are the muted contrasts. Despite some nice low-end growl, Lewis’ playing ends up making the movement alternate between somewhat soft and sluggish playing and slightly stronger though still somewhat mild playing. Where’s the heat, the bite, the passion? Things definitely pick up near the end of the movement (as does Lewis’ vocal accompaniment), but by then it’s too late. The slow movement ends up, somewhat predictably, sounding better. Lewis again deploys his interpretive tool set deftly, bringing out some nice touches. The final movement picks up where the opener left off, and is noticeably more vigorous than most of the rest of the work. Thundering bass adds to the allure, though this is somewhat offset by some halting arpeggios throughout. Even with a slightly higher musical temperature, the whole thing comes off as just a bit too laid back and soft, but even so is good enough to warrant more listens. It just ain’t a contender for top honors.

    The last sonata is the most conventional in approach, and perhaps because of that, it’s the most successful. Overall, Lewis is just a tad bit slower than I generally like, but even with that, everything is well judged overall and the tempi used in one movement or section are well judged when compared to the tempi used elsewhere. Perhaps a little bit of rhythmic drive goes missing – Lewis is certainly no Gulda – but the approach for the whole work is pretty straightforward. Only some slightly sluggish and thick playing just after 5’ mars the first movement. The second movement is nicely entertaining, taken at a nicely brisk clip and possessing solid bass underpinning. The third movement is played well enough, but is too straight. Is the music supposed to be wistful? Defiant? It’s hard to tell. But then Lewis ends things nicely enough. The concluding movement opens with a burst of energy and is superbly played, with superb articulation, wonderfully balanced playing of all the parts, and a supremely well judged overall tempo and dynamics. Had only the rest of the recording been this good this disc would really be something.

    But I don’t mean to disparage it too much. This disc is good, it’s just not great. For me, that precludes Lewis’ cycle, whenever it is complete, from being great; if’n the 31s ain’t great, the cycle ain’t great. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to hear more of Lewis’ Beethoven, though. Indeed I do. When compared to Andras Schiff’s and Ikuyo Nakamichi’s openers, I’d say that Lewis is off to a better start, and he may have much to offer going forward. I think Lewis’ playing should work well for the Op 7, 27/1, 28, 54, and 101 sonatas, and so I will wait.

    Sound for this nine-month-old recording is very clear and bright with some full, weighty, satisfying bass, though it is more reverberant than I like.

  2. #2
    Captain of Water Music
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    It’s been just over a year since Volume 1. Harmonia Mundi has followed up Paul Lewis’ good though hardly ground-breaking cycle opener with a new three-disc set filled with ten sonatas from all three of Beethoven’s compositional periods. It was only right and proper that I should listen to it. I’ll just jump right in:

    The set opens with one of the most disappointing recordings of the Pathetique I’ve heard. The chord that opens the Grave sounds controlled and only moderately strong, and it’s sustained for too long, and the extended pauses implemented prior to the Allegro don’t help matters. The playing doesn’t really set any mood at all. There’s no tension or emotion. The Allegro itself sounds too relaxed and lacks bite or appreciable drive. Lewis plays clearly and precisely, but to what end? The Adagio sounds cool yet tonally attractive, but it never really amounts to much. Same with the faster Rondo. There’s just not much to write. This is low-voltage, prim ‘n’ proper, white bread Beethoven. Scores of recordings offer more.

    The Op 22 sonata sounds at least an order of magnitude better. The Allegro con brio has more, well, brio. It’s quick and clean and clear, with Lewis showing off some dandy fingerwork, and it stays suitably upbeat. Throw in a big sound, lyrical approach, and overall nicely fluid development, and this offers much of what Op 13 lacked. The Adagio opens in light and surprisingly swift and taut fashion and maintains that basic approach throughout. It’s a bit cool, but the unbending insistence of the playing and the undeniable energy keep it moving. The Tempo di Menuetto keeps the swift sound alive, which can make the middle of the piece sound monotonous at times. An incisive, strong, and unyielding, yet not rushed middle section makes for an attractive bridge to the concluding Rondo, which sounds a little bit softer, a little more fluid, and a little more graceful. A more biting middle section offers nice contrast to the opening and closing material, and the whole sonata works quite well.

    When I wrote about the Op 31 sonatas in the first volume, I surmised that Lewis should do well in the Op 101 sonata, and he largely does. The opening Allegretto ma non troppo sounds warm and lyrical and Lewis creates an almost “floating” effect with his playing that really works well. The tempo is neither too slow nor too fast; it’s just about right. The Vivace all Marcia sounds grand and possesses a wide dynamic range, but at the same time it lacks much in the way of bite or march-like oomph. Perhaps it’s meant to be an ethereal march. The Adagio ma non troppo con affeto, by way of contrast, sounds small-scaled, slow to the point of being almost static, morose and contemplative. That’s good. Lewis then manages to almost imperceptibly and instantly switch gears completely with just one note – quite a feat – to make the concluding Allegro ma non troppo sound brighter and more joyful – though not joyous – while the fugue sounds eminently musical if a bit on the broad side speed-wise. Here’s where people may disagree, some saying it sounds poetic, other saying it sounds limp. Whatever the case, some nicely beefy bass and tightly controlled playing lend themselves to another successful reading.

    Alas, the second disc doesn’t fare so well. The disc opens with the two Op 14 sonatas back-to-back, followed by the wonderful Op 78 sonata, but I must write that I’ve rarely if ever been so bored listening to these works. The first of the Op 14 sonatas opens with an Allegro that’s nicely light and warm and sunny and immaculately played, but I found myself losing interest quickly. Things improve slightly in the second and third movements, with the playing sounding a bit more engaging, but not a whole lot. A few heavily accented notes here are often off-set by drastically underplayed music there. Things get no better in the second sonata, with a nicely lyrical but also humdrum Allegro, a too laid back Andante, and a fussy and at times clunky Scherzo. What a bummer; these works should delight, not bore. Things pick up slightly with Op 78, which opens with a lovely, warm, and generally well done but not exactly gripping Allegro ma non troppo. Fortunately the Allegro vivace sounds more vigorous and buoyant, but even so it never engages the listener. Again, what a bummer.

    But that’s far better than what happens with the Waldstein. It’s a chore to sit through. The opening Allegro con brio is awful, opening with soft, blurry, and wimpy playing of the most unappealing kind. This is exactly the effect Lewis went for, no doubt, but I don’t know why. I guessed the idea would be to offer up powerful, incredibly fast playing to off-set the mush, but no, the playing never shakes it’s wimpiness. Runs are quick but not blazing, forte passages loud but not thrilling. At roughly 11’22,” it just seems to go on and on. The Introduzione is slow, and I guess one could describe the playing as searching or melancholy, but I prefer to describe it as bland to the core. The Rondo sounds pretty but stays soft ‘n’ wimpy, and the great trill almost goes unnoticed. The swelling music sounds big ‘n’ wimpy, and stodgy. Some faster, more pointed playing shows up here and there, but to no good effect really. This work ends up sounding like The Neverending Sonata that one wants to end. Blech.

    The third disc opens with Op 90, and I hoped that Lewis would do better here. He does. But not a whole lot better. The Allegro has some nicely punched out chords and some nicely biting upper register playing, with an extended run in the middle that’s none too shabby. The Rondo sounds as lyrical as it should – it’s Schubertian even – so I couldn’t pick too many nits. Except the big one. Why? (Or perhaps: What?) It doesn’t really engage the listener.

    I wish I could write the same about Op 79, but it contains elements that repel at least this listener. The Presto alla tedesca sounds comparatively bright, but it’s too broad in tempo, and the cuckoo motif is crushed by being taken too seriously and being too distended. The Andante sound more substantive, as it should, but again it lacks much to hold the listener. The concluding Vivace is an unqualified success, sounding lively and fun, but one movement does not make a successful Op 79. It makes a dud.

    It should come as no surprise that I hesitantly approached the mighty Hammerklavier. But Lewis blew me away. This is easily the best recording in the four discs of LvB he’s made, and it stands up well to all comers. Lewis takes the Allegro at a nice pace, plays quickly and clearly and in totally controlled fashion, and makes the work sound big. More important, Lewis takes the long view; this is no of-the-moment take, this is an architectural take. That sense is reinforced in the Scherzo, which boasts all the same strengths as before. Then comes the heart of the work, and Lewis again delivers. It opens in solemn, cool, yet nicely taut fashion, all without sounding pressed. Darkness and sadness reign. Good. The second theme takes on a sense of personal desperation, and if Lewis begins to drag the music on in some places, the despondency and tension he creates keeps it on course. The Largo is slow, restrained, and anticipatory to open, then builds in tension, with some staggering bass notes thrown in for good measure, until the fugue arrives. The fugue is then played with decent clarity buy unyielding forward drive and thrilling energy and oodles of power, manifesting itself in room energizing bass on several occasions. The crashing climax before the slow, baroque sounding section thrills, and the slow music itself is eerily serene and captivating, though it doesn’t exactly make me want to hear Bach by this pianist. Any reservations are minor though; this is a magnificent recording of the work.

    How to sum up such an uneven set? The Op 13 and 53 sonatas are quite poor reading to my ears. I don’t know if I want to sit through them again, though I probably should to hear if there’s anything else in there. Most of the rest of the set is bland and uninteresting, but a solid Op 101, excellent Op 22, and incredible Op 106 make me want to hold on to the set. I’m not sure I’ll rush out and buy the next two sets, though. I must disagree with the several quotes and reviews I’ve read touting this as a great cycle in the making. I find it anything but. I certainly hope Lewis delivers knock-out recordings of the remaining 19 sonatas – he certainly has the ability to do so – but I doubt he will. So this set is one for intrepid LvB fans only.

    SOTA sound complete with lotsa vocalizing.

    The universe is change, life is opinion. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

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