REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Paul Lewis, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, January 14

Paul Lewis: ” A strain of melancholy threaded through the evening but the result was riveting”

PAUL Lewis is among Britain’s finest pianists. So to have him visit York at the invitation of the British Music Society – which is enjoying a bumper season – was a special privilege.

He presented two of Beethoven’s better-known sonatas, the ‘Pathétique’ and the ‘Appassionata’ (not names assigned by the composer), which framed a Debussy suite and Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasy.

A strain of melancholy threaded through the evening but the result was riveting. The opening Grave of the ‘Pathétique’ was exceptionally spacious, with chord-resolutions delayed to the absolute maximum, so that the succeeding Allegro, taken at lightning pace, felt even quicker by contrast.

The accompanimental figures in the slow movement were rich and dark, which lent the main melody, beautifully sustained, an autumnal fireside warmth. In contrast, the rondo theme in the finale was surprisingly light and frisky at first, becoming progressively more urgent until its resolute last appearance, which recaptured the intensity of the very opening of the work.

Debussy’s Children Corner suite is not kiddies’ music, either for players or listeners. Lewis offered the pretence that it was, touching in the details of these character-pieces with a delicate brush while keeping their droll humour to the fore.

Jimbo’s clumsy lullaby, the doll’s clockwork serenade and a snowy white-out were but preludes to the loneliness of the little shepherd and the Golliwogg’s self- satisfied strut (with a moment of self-doubt thrown in). It was hard not to smile throughout.

Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantasy Op 61 in A flat. which dates from 1846, three years before he died, is one of the most forward-looking pieces he ever penned. It belonged next to Debussy in this programme exactly because it is so impressionistic.

Its dance element – the polonaise section of the title – only really becomes clear towards the end, after a considerable stretch of varying, improvisatory ramblings. Lewis excelled in differentiating its many changes of colour, where lesser pianists can get lost in its brambles. In his hands it became a ballade, often tinged with melancholy, with the third of its three main sections building persuasively into dramatic closure.

By now, Lewis’s adrenaline must really have been flowing: volatility was the name of his game in Beethoven’s ‘Appassionata’, Op 57 in F minor. Where there was some cloudiness in the first movement’s bass line, its very detail endowed the central variations with a marvellous nobility, stoically underpinning the increasingly taxing decorations.

He preferred to gloss over the ‘ma non troppo’ (not too much) of the third movement’s Allegro – which added to its fearsome frenzy but left little acceleration in reserve for the closing Presto. No matter: it still became a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions, daringly delivered.

Review by Martin Dreyer

REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Stephen Hough, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, October 6

Stephen Hough: “A hungry lion newly released from his cage”

THE resumption of the University of York’s Live Concert series was greeted with a full house on Wednesday. No wonder: we were there to welcome a titan of the keyboard.

Stephen Hough was in pugnacious mood, as well he might be after prolonged lockdown, a hungry lion newly released from his cage. He had chosen to satisfy his appetite on meaty chunks of Schumann and Chopin, leavened by two British composers, Alan Rawsthorne and Hough himself.

Rawsthorne’s Bagatelles, his first serious piano music that coincided with his first international recognition in 1938, launched Hough straight into a tempestuous whirlwind, although that was soon moderated by more pensive lyricism, a skittish interlude and a sad duologue between the hands, as if looking back at what might have been these past two years.

Forward-looking Schumann, stretching tonality as far as he ever did, came with Kreisleriana, dedicated to Chopin but written in 1838 with Clara Wieck in mind, in the long run-up to their marriage two years later.

The two sides of Schumann’s personality, fiery Florestan and easy-going Eusebius, actually mirrored the eccentric conductor Kreisler (a figment of E T A Hoffmann’s imagination), who is pictured here in eight “fantasies”, in G minor or its relative major, B flat.

In truth, it was Florestan who had much the upper hand in this account, with the forte passages cumulatively becoming an angry tour de force and the slower melodies tending towards moodiness. But there always a keen sense of shape, even when Schumann was at his most temperamental.

Hough’s own five-movement Partita, written only two years ago, proved a substantial treat. The martial opening of its Overture returns in driven style after a flightier Trio (such as every march should have), before a cute little coda.

A jittery Capriccio and two eloquent song-and-dance routines inspired by Mompou, the one very high, the other elegiac, preceded a hugely demanding Toccata, which could not help recalling Widor’s eponymous movement from his Fifth Symphony. It reached a breath-taking climax.

Finally, to more familiar Chopin, which was greeted with rapt attention. Ballade No 3 came across as an entity, rather than a series of episodes and its continuity was wholly convincing.

Hough’s unique ability to sustain a melody had really begun to emerge. In two nocturnes we were in piano heaven, with the most delicate of decorations in the F sharp (Op 15 No 2) and a gorgeously restrained, barely audible ending to the E flat (Op 9 No 2).

There was considerable urgency in the Second Scherzo, in B flat minor, which meant a mildly garbled ending when it accelerated, but by now Hough could do no wrong. This virtuoso lion was taking no prisoners – and we loved him for it. What a return!

Review by Martin Dreyer