Young superstar pianists come and go almost as frequently as ice cream flavors of the month. A few years ago everyone was clamoring for Lang Lang—until Yuja Wang became flavor of the month. Now Daniil Trifonov is the object of everyone’s affection and adulation.Pianists in mid-career, such as the English performer Paul Lewis, are not on as many aficianados’ radar. The accomplished 43-year-old pianist gave a polished, if unexceptional, recital Friday (March 11) for the La Jolla Music Society in La Jolla’s Sherwood Auditorium. Unlike Trifonov’s sold-out recital last month in that venue, there were plenty of empty seats for Lewis’s recital.
His Brahms Ballades, Op. 10, and Intermezzi, Op. 117, revealed a thoughtful, introspective interpreter of standard repertory, engaging the imagination more than passion. I appreciated the depth and richness of the sonority he crafted for these Brahms pieces, as well his deft phrasing, gracefully arched melodies, and serene contrapuntal exposition.
The opening D Minor Ballade, based on the traditional Scottish ballad “Edward,” glowed with mystic intensity in the outer sections, while the fateful middle section roiled appropriately with turbulent malevolence. In the B Major Ballade, Lewis’s astute voicing brought out Brahms’ rich harmonic palette that drove its broadly imagined thematic invention.
For my taste, his account of the Intermezzi, Op. 117, was too quietly autumnal. The B-flat Minor Intermezzo, for example, is marked “con molto espressione” (with great expression), and I did not feel he came anywhere near “molto.” As a master class in Brahms interpretation for aspiring piano students, Lewis’s approach would have been completely laudable, but in solo recital this approach seemed underwhelming.
Lewis saved his virtuoso fury for his concluding piece, Franz Liszt’s tempestuous “Après une lecture de Dante: fantasia quasi sonata.” After opening with portentous fanfare themes, Liszt unleashes blistering descending octaves that are intended to take the listener to Dante’s lowest rings of the Inferno. Lewis’s masterful execution of the fantasia’s complex cross hand textures proved equal to those fiery opening octaves, and his bold, powerful final cadences did the work justice.
It has taken some time for Schubert’s piano sonatas to be granted the aesthetic appreciation they deserve, although most musicians agree that his later sonatas offer much more depth and challenge to both listener and performer. Lewis chose Schubert’s Sonata in B Major, a work he completed at age 19 with the goal of earning money from publication for Europe’s expanding market of amateur pianists. Unfortunately, the sonata was not published in Schubert’s lifetime, and while it is an attractive four-movement sonata, it comes across as ingratiating and not particularly adventurous.
Lewis lavished sensitive attention to every detail and winning theme this early sonata contains, but he could not raise it to a level of profundity its creator did not instill.