I cannot think of a better programme to end the Vancouver Recital Society’s 2014-2015 season than the last three sonatas of Beethoven, especially when the artist is Paul Lewis.
Lewis has, by now, lived with these towering works for a long time, and it showed. From the first, deceptively simple, notes of the Op. 109, to the ethereal ending of the Op. 111, the performances revealed Lewis’ deep love and regard for these works, as well as a command of the overall structure and architecture of these elusive works that comes only with time.
Other than the emotional associations we have toward these works, it is important to remember that by the end of his life, Beethoven was no longer performing as a virtuoso pianist. Indeed, there are many of the early and middle period sonatas that are more technically demanding than these three last sonatas. What he wrote during this last period of his life, be it the last string quartets or the piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, or the Op. 119 Bagatelles, he wrote in spite of, and not for, the medium. That said, it of course takes a supreme artist and pianist to overcome the technical hurdles in these works. Lewis’ performance last night succeeded in making me forget that someone was playing the piano, and I can think of no higher compliment.
From the unassuming opening of the Op. 109 sonata, with its rippling broken chords, Paul Lewis was in complete control of all the elements and details of the score, yet without losing sight of the complete picture. In the third movement, with the heavenly theme, travelling through the incredible series of variations, and then back to the main theme, Lewis played as if, from the first chord of the theme, he clearly saw the way back to the main theme without losing his way. When the theme did return, one felt as if one had been traveling on an incredible journey with the artist.
For me, the high point of the first half of the concert was how Lewis built the last movement of the Op. 110 sonata, from its simple, unassuming opening with the few notes of the fugue subject, and slowly, gradually the music soared and soared until it reached the summit, with the triumphant A-flat chord. To my ears, it was the most well thought out interpretation of this difficult movement, yet without sacrificing spontaneity.
Lewis’ playing of the 1st movement of the Op. 111 sonata was, in a word, sweeping, as if there was not a single moment of self-doubt. I have the feeling that when Beethoven wrote these sonatas, he was already speaking to us from another world. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 2nd and final movement, where I get the sense that the music is taking us away from physical reality, and that we are travelling to the realm of the purely spiritual. The playing in this movement was simply glorious, especially in the pages of trills in the final pages, and with the theme tottering just on the edge, delicate and fragile. It is, to me, the most incredible closing in all of music. Lewis succeeded in conveying the otherworldly beauty of this music. At the end of the performance, I felt that it would almost have been rude to applaud.
All in all, an auspicious end to what had been a great season of live music. Now that Paul Lewis had shared with us so much of his thoughts on Beethoven, perhaps Leila Getz would see to it that he returns with further thoughts on the music of Franz Schubert, another composer that has been occupying the time and thoughts of Paul Lewis.