Letting music speak for itself: Paul Lewis in Reuters Life

Michael Roddy of Reuters Life recently spoke to Paul Lewis about growing up in a non-musical family in Liverpool and living with the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas intensely for two years of recording, amongst other things. Here’s an extract from the interview:

Q: How does a person from a non-musical blue-collar family in Liverpool, which you describe as a city of real but “lovable roughness”, end up as a classical pianist and why didn’t you want to be John Lennon, like every Liverpudlian teenage boy?

A: “I didn’t think about it, it didn’t seem like a strange thing to do, I just loved it. I went to the local schools until I was 14 and I got quite a lot of piss-take (teasing) but…it didn’t really bother me. I knew there weren’t many people who this (classical music) did it for in the way it did it for me, but it genuinely didn’t bother me. I didn’t feel the need to fit in…and after a Liverpool Philharmonic concert I’d be on a high for days, I couldn’t get it out of my head.”

Q: Speaking of having something stuck in your head, what is it like living with the Beethoven piano sonatas for two years, and why does it seem like every pianist worth his or her salt has to tackle the whole body of them, sometimes two or three times in a career, as Brendel did?

A: “You’re dealing with one of the greatest piano composers, obviously…who’s left one of the most enormous and wide-ranging bodies of work for solo piano. The possibilities within it are endless and I think that, and that the 32 sonatas stand as one unit, one huge peak of the repertoire, I think that’s what everybody finds so attractive. The scope, the range of it is enormous and it’s something you can spend a good lifetime coming back to.”

Q: How different are the concertos, which you’ll be playing with different orchestras for the Proms which run from July through September? Are they just bigger, more bombastic, less intimate versions of the same thing?

A: “If you take the biggest and most bombastic, the Emperor Concerto (No. 5) it’s surprising, you get all this huge, epic symphonic stuff…but in addition there’s quite a lot of chamber-like writing, the piano playing with a single instrument, and there’s a lot of balancing that has to go on. … These pieces never just go down one route, they’re always trying to catch you out.”

Q: And what about that crow in the Frankfurt “Winterreise”? One of the lieder is entitled “The Crow”, so a case could be made that Schubert had it coming.

A: “Eight years ago I did a staged version of Schubert song cycles at the Frankfurt Opera…but the director…was more interested in his concept, of adding things which would get a laugh. In ‘Die Krahe’ (The Crow, from Winterreise) …there’s this very ethereal, ‘other-worldly’ music and at that point he had someone open a door and push a stuffed crow in and go ‘caa, caa’ — and of course it got a laugh. So anyway, that was the end of that.”

Read the whole interview here.

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