This past Sunday afternoon at Hertz Hall in Berkeley, Cal Performances hosted world-renowned pianist Paul Lewis, an artist known for his interpretations of the greatest 18th and 19th century composers, Beethoven and Schubert especially. Today, however, he presented a varied and well thought-out program of compatible pieces by Bach, Beethoven, Liszt, and Mussorgsky.
Lewis, strikingly handsome and known for being an impressive Beethoven look-alike, ditched the usual formal suit and instead went for a modest, all-black ensemble, looking a little more laid back yet still formal enough for the stage. He organized the first half of the recital with alternating Bach and Beethoven pieces, two Chorale Preludes by the first, and the Op. 27 sonatas by the latter. The printed program requested that there be no applause in between the two groupings of Bach and Beethoven pieces, which made for an interesting continuation of sound and energy throughout the first half. Lewis played the somber G minor first Chorale Prelude, Num komm’ der Heiden Heiland, BWV 659 (arr. Busoni) in a quiet, meditative manor with an exquisite use of the damper pedal, as intended by Busoni. His pedaling did not in any way obscure the clarity and precision of note-values, nor the stylistic requirements of the piece, but rather, enhanced the counterpoint and harmonic richness of the piece. The final picardy third of the chorale, still very much connected to the G minor overall tonality of the rest of the piece, blended quite well, although not perfectly (a good thing!) with the beginning E-flat Major chords of the first of the two Op. 27 Beethoven sonata. Lewis asked that there be no applause between the pieces, not only because of the harmonic progression, but also because the pieces, somehow, in this arrangement, couldn’t help but blend well atmospherically.
The first of the Op. 27 sonatas was played with great attention to detail. It is no surprise that, as a protégé of Alfred Brendel (known for his Beethoven sonata cycle), Lewis would play with such precision of dynamics, articulation, and accents. However, the “Quasi una Fantasia” subtitle that Beethoven marks for his two op. 27 pieces implies perhaps a broader range of freedom, especially with timing, than the pianist took at times, specifically in the slower movements and sections of the pieces. The momentum he exhibited throughout his performance was convincing, and his insistence to play the first sonata without any breaks between movements added even more to the “unstoppability” of Beethoven’s lines. Yet, not until the fourth movement of the piece did the “Fantasia” improvisatory aspect of the first sonata truly emerge; however, but once it happened, the rest of the piece seemed to tie together rather well to the first three movements, and the intensely emphasized lyrical qualities were well balanced by the rustic edginess of the last movement.
The Bach Chorale-Beethoven Sonata cycle was repeated again, after the first round of applause so far in the concert, this time starting out with Bach’s Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639, in F minor, and continuing with Beethoven’s famous “Moonlight Sonata,” the second of the “Quasi una Fantasia” group. In the second Bach piece, similarly reflective like the first, the pianist was even freer with expressive emphasis through subtle agogics. Here the bridge to the Beethoven sonata connected even more magically as the faceless, ghostly opening of the Moonlight’s first movement seemed to mysteriously emerge from the Bach. Needless to say, the second Sonata was played as well as the previous E-flat Sonata and had great success with the audience — it ended powerfully and elicited a warmly, enthusiastic response from the audience.
The second half of the program was a complete skip in time, opening with three rather enigmatic late works by Liszt composed from 1881 to 1883 – Schlafos! Frage und Antwort, S 203, Unstern! Sinistre, disastro, S. 208, and R. W. – Venezia, S. 201 – played in a similarly, yet more darkly reflective way, than the Bach pieces from the first half. The first work is a “nocturne” written after the death of Liszt’s friend and “New German School” mate Richard Wagner, and the last, Venezia, is written before the other two pieces” and referred to the dark year before Wagner’s death, expressing uncertainty of tonality, and even funeral-like imagery. The middle piece is a broader expression of the feelings in the outer two, and, as the title indicates (“unlucky star” or “misfortune” in German), a lament about Liszt’s sudden change of lifestyle from the glamorous and flamboyant to the tormented (both his children’s deaths happened around this time) and internally ever evolving more spiritual person he eventually became. The “lateness” of this music, and its internal nature, therefore, did not seem suddenly accidental; it all tied in perfectly, through the pianist’s poetic characterization, with the rest of his well-selected, fantasy and reflection-oriented program.
The last and most massive piece on the program was Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, which, as the title suggests, is an intense character piece describing different tableaus and, respectively, the seer’s changing reaction, characterized through the recurring Promenade, after seeing each of them. Lewis exhibited massive technique, a powerful bass, and again a heavy dose of imagination and convincing dramatization; he was able to capture the work’s deeply Russian spirit, with its many nuanced moods and edgy narrative lines. Lewis received an enthusiastic standing ovation, and played one encore – yet another late Liszt piece, about one minute in length, composed right before the three on the program – glowingly beautiful and poetically portrayed, as if to blow off the steam of the Mussorgsky and end the afternoon on yet another internal note.