Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Ateş Orga

Haydn Sonata in C-minor, Hob.XVI/20, circa 1771. Beethoven Thirty-Three Variations in C-major on a Waltz of Diabelli, Opus 120, 1819-23. Habsburg music either side of the Revolution divide. Paul Lewis was in cool, undemonstrative control – even if at times, especially in the Beethoven, it felt as though he was perhaps more score-playing than piano-playing. The Haydn made the more lasting impression. An intimate, confiding performance cleanly dispatched, ornamentation articulated with clarity, the tempo ideally judged. A thoughtful musician at the keyboard, the composer left to speak and express, quietly serving muse and master in the isolation of Esterháza.

Addressing the audience (restricted to 150, entrance by ballot) Iain Burnside – who knows these notes as well as Lewis – reminded correctly that the Diabelli Variations are an encyclopedic venture, compositionally and pianistically. But couldn’t resist wheeling out the old cliché about Beethoven “turning Diabelli’s base metal [‘cobbler’s patch’] into musical gold”. Poor Diabelli. He always gets such a bad press, author of a theme, Brendel once wrote, which can only be “improved, parodied, ridiculed, disclaimed, transfigured, mourned, [and] stamped out”. The bustling teacher and publisher from Salzburg, former priest, didn’t have Beethoven’s genius or enquiry to unlock the potential within his thirty-two bars. Yet they still sowed the kind of seeds that other people’s dances – Schubert’s, for instance: melodically memorable but fundamentally foursquare, largely tonic-dominant-subdominant affairs – lacked.

Favouring an architectural overview in four ‘movements’ (Theme; i, Variations I-X; ii, XI-XIX; interlude, XX; iii, XXI-XXVIII; iv, XXIX-XXXI; Fugue, Minuet, XXXII-XXXIII), with relatively dry pedalling ensuring crisp staccato action and clearly voiced contrapuntal textures, Lewis’s reading hasn’t changed that much over the years. Delicacy was to be found (II); charm (V); leggiero brilliance (X); humour and choreographed ‘where do we go to next’ pauses (XIII); scherzando staccato/legato fleetness (XV); bravura and quasi-orchestral dialogue (XVI, XVII); grand étude (XXIII); bagatelle étude (XXVI, VII); dizzily tossed slurring (XXVIII). The Bachian homage (XXIX-XXXII) touched eloquence. The Fugue dealt in tough, driven argument. The beatific closing Minuet sought paradisum.

In an account broadly faithful to the page, the one perversity (chanced at least as early as Lewis’s 2009 Berlin recording) came in the second-half rubato and tempo liberties of XXII, the Mozart Leporello parody. I can’t say it’s a mannerism that convinces. Nor was I always comfortable with the lack of air and punctuation between some of the Variations. Hastening into the sanctity of XIV – Hans von Bülow’s “sublime arches of a Gothic cathedral” – is to make an undignified entry. Occasionally I sensed Lewis, listless of appearance, going through the motions, substituting ordinariness for monumentality, reluctant to risk the precipice. More tension and bite, greater variety of colour and registration, wouldn’t have gone amiss.