Paul Lewis brings stellar artistry to Celebrity Series recital

March 27, 2017 at 12:30 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Paul Lewis performed a recital Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Paul Lewis performed a recital Sunday afternoon at Jordan Hall. Photo: Robert Torres

Paul Lewis’s appearances in Boston have been rare, but each has been memorable.

Four years ago, the British pianist made his long-awaited local debut as part of the Celebrity Series. His recital featured the late piano sonatas of Schubert, works with which he has made a mark in international circles. In March of 2015 Lewis paired up with violinist Lisa Batiashvili for noteworthy performances of works by Sibelius, Schubert, and Beethoven. 

Lewis’s return to the Celebrity Series Sunday afternoon for a solo recital at Jordan Hall stands out as one of the highlights of the current season. Playing with stellar technique and searching musicality, Lewis delivered memorable performances of works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, and Weber.

The piano sonatas of Carl Maria von Weber were once performed regularly and recorded in abundance. But in the past half-century the works have fallen into neglect. It’s hard to understand why, for they are rich in drama and mark the beginnings of keyboard romanticism.

The Piano Sonata No. 2 in A-flat major, which Lewis performed Sunday, abounds with freely expressive melodies and wide sweeps of emotion. The waltzing theme of the first movement, which looks ahead to Chopin, turns vigorously in place. The furious figures of the Menuetto capriccioso swirled in a whirlwind of filigree. The second movement is poetic, and the finale features spinning melodies that resemble Schumann’s lyrical style.

The work had a stellar advocate in Lewis. Playing with remarkable precision and a tone that was plush and rounded even in forte passages, the pianist found the operatic drama laden within the piece. Phrases in the upper register sounded with clarity. In other places, dark passages yielded to lines of sunny lyricism. Lewis conjured the powerful chords and running figures of the first movement with intensity, drawing early applause.

The other big work heard Sunday, Beethoven’s Sonata No. 4 in E-flat major, was just as noteworthy for its musical spectacle.

Many pianists render the power in Beethoven’s sonatas through crash-and-bang interpretations. But Lewis is capable of building the music to satisfying climaxes while retaining a clear, full tone. The pianist also has the skill to spin technical passages into singing arcs. That was the case in the first movement, where the triplet figures flowed gracefully over solid left-hand chords. The development section, with its diversions into minor keys, had deep mystery.

The Minuet began softly, and Lewis added volume and energy as he moved through the phrase. In the second movement, Lewis spun lines of soft intensity. The Rondo was a true culmination of the sonata, with Lewis shading the contrasting themes with tasteful dynamics.

Even the opener, Bach’s Partita No. 1, showed Lewis as a musician of utmost sensitivity. His Bach has the nimble grace one would find in Glenn Gould’s performances. Yet Lewis found the song-like quality in the work’s trickling lines. The streams and eddies of the Prelude flowed effortlessly, and the dancing phrases of the Allemande and Courante had a warm glow, with Lewis’ dynamic touch providing direction and momentum. The two Minuet movements unfolded elegantly into the churning Gigue. Lewis’ performance was strongest in the Sarabande, which moved freely, the lines glowing at a distance.

Rounding out the program were three waltzes by Chopin. The works, pieced together with little pause, resulted in an extended musical conversation. In the Waltz in A minor, Op. 34, No. 2, the rhythms turned about in a stately tempo before swelling to a glide. The Waltz in F minor, Op. 70, No. 2 took on greater energy, with Lewis shaping in the principal line with shimmering flourishes. The Waltz in D-flat major, Op. 64, No. 1, nicknamed the “Minute Waltz,” was the cresting point, its phrases moving in rapid, twisting motion.

The audience rewarded Lewis and his thoughtful program with generous applause. He returned the gesture by offering a singing and colorful encore of Schubert’s Allegretto in C minor, D. 915.

The next classical music event sponsored by the Celebrity Series will feature violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Robert Levin in music by Bach, Abril, Mozart, Türk, and Schubert 8 p.m. Saturday at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617- 482-6661.

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