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Archive for May, 2011

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis

After his last recital at Chicago’s Symphony Center in February this year (sadly, I was too busy with my day job to contribute a blog entry), Paul Lewis was berated by a woman at the post-concert reception for not playing an encore. He had finished his recital with Schubert’s D-major Sonata, D850, a work that starts full of youthful vigor and confidence but whose last movement has an enchanting child-like innocence. I don’t think there is any Freudian subtext here. This isn’t some kind of psychological regression caused by an earlier crisis, at least judging by the earlier movements; it seems more like  a child’s view of heaven, a kind of pre-echo of the last movement of Mahler’s 4th Symphony. Lewis tried to explain that no encore could follow such sublime simplicity but his critic was not convinced. He took the scolding with good humor, but I think managed to avoid giving an unequivocal promise to rectify things the next time. And he didn’t. Yesterday, he returned for another all-Schubert recital but, fortunately for him, there was no reception following the concert this time, so he didn’t have to face the music after failing in his assigned duties once again.

Paul Lewis has a holistic view of recitals, a belief in the oneness of music (which may be why he wears a black shirt with a Mandarin collar, giving him the air of a Zen master). Pianists are often asked how they planned a concert program, and some are more convincing than others in coming up with an explanation. However, Lewis doesn’t just connect pieces in the abstract; he bonds them together. A couple of years ago, he slyly started Mozart’s Rondo in A-minor before anyone realized that the preceding Ligeti had finished, giving the chromaticism of the opening melody a distinctly modern twist. To achieve his goal, he has to trick the audience by hovering expectantly over the keyboard once a piece has ended, confusing us into silence. Yesterday, he contrived to link Schubert’s Hungarian Rondo to his G-major Sonata, D894, this way, although it might be easier if he just told us to hold the applause. At least, everyone would know what was going on.

This desire to turn recitals into a unified artistic experience, a meaningful event, could be pretentious and egotistical if it weren’t for the fact that Lewis’ playing is so extraordinarily beautiful. Nobody else this season in Chicago has made the piano sing with such luminous tone, shaped phrases with such haunting subtlety, or shaded the accompaniments with such precisely varied colors. He plays everything with complete authority, knowing exactly what he wants to say and being able to express it with total technical command. On paper, this program did not require a particularly strong technique, but true virtuosity is not just about speed and power and this was virtuoso playing of the highest order.

I expect that Lewis is fed up with being hailed as the new ‘Alfred Brendel’ but I think that, like Imogen Cooper before him, he has absorbed a certain aesthetic sensibility from his former teacher  that is now fused with his own musical personality (although if he does get irritated with the comparison, he should stop adopting some of Brendel’s quirks, such as a snatching his hands away from the keyboard as if he had touched a red-hot poker). In the mid-seventies, I attended a series of master-classes that Brendel gave on London’s South Bank that were nothing short of revelatory, and have had a profound effect on my whole approach to music and the piano ever since. In hearing the way Lewis maintains tension throughout a musical line, uses the pedal to shape phrases, or varies the color of inner voices within chords, I hear clear echoes of what Brendel conveyed in those classes. On the other hand, I don’t mean to suggest that Lewis’ playing is derivative. I think he often plays with greater rhythmic freedom and suppleness than Brendel, and his phrasing is a little less sculpted and more natural, but there is definitely a family resemblance.

After some of Schubert’s youthful waltzes, Lewis played his first set of Impromptus, D899. I sometimes have a rather jaded response to these pieces, partly because they are so often performed and partly because they can sound rather plain if not played with the greatest subtlety. You also need a superb piano, because the pianistic textures can sound rather congested if the left-hand accompaniments are not as expertly controlled as they were here. The streaming triplets in the second movement are not as difficult as they sound, but they were rewarded by an eruption of applause anyway (rather ironic, I suppose), before the famous G-flat major Impromptu brought out Lewis’ best cantabile playing. The final movement is equally famous, but has rarely sparkled as brightly as in this performance.

The real highlight of the afternoon was the great G-major sonata. This is perhaps one of Schubert’s most serene works. He can never completely suppress the demons lurking below the surface; there are a couple of temperamental outbursts in the slow movement, and the first movement’s development section builds to an anguished climax, but the overall mood is one of profound repose. I have mixed feelings about repeats on some of Schubert’s longer movements, which can seem dangerously over-extended, but Lewis’ playing of the opening chords was so gentle and transfixingly beautiful that I was grateful when he started the exposition all over again. In this music more than any other, Schubert seems to suspend time completely, without being the least soporific, ending the movement in contented tranquility.

The slow movement is one of Schubert’s most lyrical, without the infinite sadness of his last sonatas, but with an achingly poignant modulation towards the end. For some reason, Schubert often saved some of his most intimate music for the trio sections of his scherzi, and this sonata has a particularly beautiful example, played with exquisitely hushed pianissimos by Lewis. Brendel would allow himself to smile gently in these passages, his mouth trembling as if to let us know that he was sharing an especially precious confidence with us, but Lewis was wise to look more conventionally expressive; I don’t suppose his lips are given much to quivering anyway. He finished his recital playfully, dispatching the finale with relaxed affection and warmth.

Some have criticized Paul Lewis’ playing as over-controlled and lacking in spontaneity – that is always the flip-side of having a clear vision of the music – but I think, as he has matured, he has also loosened up a little and, to my ears, his playing now has great naturalness as well as sensitivity. As I walked down the stairs after the concert, the last movement still dancing in my ears, I realized how grateful I was that he had ignored the insatiable demand for encores. They really would have disrupted my moment of Zen.

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Arnaldo Cohen

Arnaldo CohenA small red carpet had been laid under the piano pedals before the recital by Arnaldo Cohen in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall on Sunday. Knowing that he was going to play a selection of Brazilian music, I assumed that it was there in case Cohen felt an irresistible urge to stamp his feet or click his heels to the infectious latin rhythms. Although he came on stage suitably dressed in jet black shirt and swept back hair, I needn’t have worried because most of the selection appeared to have been written to provide sheet music to a respectable Brazilian middle class rather than express the earthy passions of the favelas. The most engaging piece was more of a soft-shoe shuffle by Ernesto Nazareth, entitled Odéon, presumably written when a visit to the local cinema was the height of cool. They were not all salon pieces – a waltz by Radamés Gnattali had the etiolated lyricism of one of Scriabin’s later poems and there was a brief  perpetuum mobile by Antonio Braga – but they were mostly the kind of music that I used to enjoy finding in Travis and Emery, off the Charing Cross Road, which was filled with yellowing scores that would crumble to dust if not handled with reverence for a forgotten past. Cohen has evident affection for this music – he played a similar selection the last time I heard him six years ago – even though they hardly stretch his formidable technique.

He started the recital with Busoni’s transcription of Bach’s D-minor Chaconne. I guess it is the power of auto-suggestion, but I was struck by how latin this piece sounded as well. Perhaps it shouldn’t have been a surprise, because Villa-Lobos had conferred honourary Brazilian citizenship on Bach a century ago, but the music could have been a passionate lament inspired by a Goya painting rather than the work of a middle-European Kapellmeister. Of course, Busoni’s epic re-imagining amplifies the rhetoric and fills it with romantic colour, but there is plenty of drama in the original and Bach is not the dry academic we sometimes think. Cohen played with rhapsodic freedom (more Busoni than Bach), emphasizing contrasting moods rather than structural momentum, and throwing off the virtuosic flourishes with some panache.

We had to wait until the end of the first half for the castanets to finally come out in Liszt’s Rhapsodie Espagnole. It’s a cliché to say that the best Spanish music was written by non-Spaniards, a claim that Albeniz and de Falla would have some issue with, but the Iberian sunshine does seem to have inspired many composers, from Glinka to Debussy, to produce their most joyous music. After the brooding of the opening La Folia, the Jota Aragonese starts with a snap of the fingers (figuratively); it’s as if the clouds part and the world is bathed with colour again. I particularly enjoyed the way Cohen lingered at this point, as if succumbing briefly to the seductive scent of jasmine in the air, before launching into the festive dance again. The music is notoriously difficult to play – any technical shortcomings and the dancers would end up in a heap on the floor – but it was dispatched with infectious ease, with no let-up in speed as Liszt turns up the throttle in the final pages. At the end, Cohen appeared a little dazed, as if startled at what he had just accomplished, although he soon recovered to acknowledge the thunderous applause.

The second half was devoted to Chopin’s four ironically named Scherzi. These are amongst his most restless compositions, with turbulent outer sections surrounding interludes that are calmer but still laden with the expectation of a gathering storm. The central section of the first Scherzo was touchingly played, with a resigned nobility, and I thought Cohen responded well throughout to the brief lyrical flights, playing for example with greater emotional freedom in the second Scherzo than Aimard earlier in the season. The final Scherzo is the exception to this group, more playful and relaxed, still expectant but of future happiness rather than encroaching gloom. It’s a deceptively difficult piece to play, particularly ensuring that the rapid chordal passages don’t sound arthritic, but Cohen made them dance lightly enough. He then gave, as an encore, a touching account of one of  Liszt’s Consolations*, simple but moving.

It is now a few years since Arnaldo Cohen relocated to the mid-west from London, and I expect this Symphony Center recital is one of his rewards. Certainly, the reception was enthusiastic enough to suggest that he will be invited again soon. There is no doubt that he has a prodigious technique, and his playing possesses a natural lyricism, so it seems he deserves to be better known. Why he is not is difficult to judge. Perhaps his playing could do with an ounce more poise – his technique ensures that the fast passages are not scrambled, but sometimes they feel a little rushed – and he could possibly play some of the quieter passages with a more hushed intimacy, but this was one of the more purely enjoyable recitals of the Chicago season, and not just because of the colourful program. I look forward to hearing him when he returns.

* see comments – thanks for the correction

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