An Interview with Paul Lewis
There are many things to be found in Paul Lewis’s programme of Beethoven and Brahms for his current Musica Viva tour, but hilarity is not one of them. Lewis agrees with wry amusement; the same was the case for his last Musica Viva tour.
“In the last three Beethoven sonatas, there’s not a trace of humour, really. I mean, I do play humourous music, but it just seems that I don’t play it when I go on Musica Viva tours.
“There are certainly no jokes in this programme, but the combination of Brahms and Beethoven seems to work very well. There’s a sort of story-telling, especially in the Ballades. It deals with the big stuff. I find the combination quite attractive, despite the fact that it’s not exactly light.”
Lewis points to the first of Brahms’ four Ballades, which tells the story of a son who kills his father.
“It’s astonishing. The point at which the act is committed is very obvious. I can’t think of many instances in music where murder is translated as clearly as it is in this piece.”
The journey to Brahms has been a long one for him, says Lewis.
“I have a strange relationship with Brahms. I played the D minor concerto for the first time last year; and I’ve never been that enthusiastic about the B flat concerto. But there’s something about Brahms which becomes more attractive with time. I hear the nuts and bolts of the structure – the workings of the craft – and not so much the music. But maybe I’m getting older, because I’ve had less of a problem with that recently.
“The Ballades are more experimental, more radical than he was later. They’re just wonderful pieces. And the Three Intermezzi – the first piece is almost Schubertian in its intimacy; and there’s a sense of opennness about them that I don’t yet feel with a lot of Brahms. So there is a lot of contrast in the programme.”
Lewis sees a strong link between the music of the Brahms Ballades and Beethoven’s Op 111 piano sonata.
“Both the last of the Ballades and the Arietta of the 111 are very introspective and timeless music. The Arietta for me is one of those state-of-mind pieces – it really does feel as if time stops in some way.”
The last of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, written when he was almost completely deaf, the 32nd piano Sonata, Op 111, is for Lewis an exception within an exceptional oeuvre.
“I get the feeling that this is the invention of somebody who has not been influenced by outside sound, music, noise, whatever, for quite some time. There are theories that when he writes, as he does in the arietta, both very very low down on the keyboard and very high up at the same time, he’s striving to hear what he’s writing. I think it’s something else. The feeling of distance – it’s like striding out and wanting to push the boundaries of the keyboard and of music itself.
“In many of his pieces you get this sense of struggle that somehow resolves – he answers his own questions, if you like. Whereas in 111, there’s no obvious resolution. There’s just a coming-to-terms with something. Leaving the ship behind and rising above – it’s that kind of feeling.”
Musica Viva audiences, Lewis says, listen with exceptional attentiveness. He has no difficulty finding Musica Viva’s four core values – quality, diversity, challenge and joy – within his own world.
“In terms of my own diversity with repertoire, I try to touch all corners of it as often as I can. I don’t play all of it in public. I play what I feel I have more chance of conveying.
“Anything that’s worth experiencing is a challenge. The easier it is the more disposable it is. Something that requires effort and investment is something that will enrich our lives – I strongly believe that. Then you feel that you’re adding something, that you’re learning something. In order to experience that, a certain amount of quality is necessary. You have to be dealing with great music.
“The joy is in the experience, in the process of enrichment. The outcome is of relief, of getting to another place, reaching another state. There’s a joy in that. It’s not an obvious kind of joy. But it’s joy.”
Interview by Shirley Apthorp, photos by Keith Saunders
Paul Lewis tours Australia 27 August – 12 September. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/GetLewis