Beethoven Piano Concerto No 5, by Paul Lewis

Gramophone Mon 5th September 2016

For the British pianist, the ‘Emperor’ is a robust concerto which feels fresh every time

The Emperor Concerto is one of those pieces by Beethoven where logic comes to the fore. The inherent, logical beauty of the way in which it’s structured makes it so satisfying; the journey seems complete. I probably first listened to it when I was eight or nine years old, and I remember just thinking, ‘This is proper music!’ I didn’t know why that was, but I think it’s the completeness and the logic of the journey that came through.

We think of it quite stereotypically as a big-boned symphonic work – which it is in many ways – but I’ve always felt that the real challenge of this piece, certainly in playing it, is in finding the balance. You can become quite overwhelmed with the symphonic nature of it, but it’s so much more than that. It’s chamber music as well, and you can find that, one minute, you’re part of a huge orchestral texture and then, the next, you’re having to rise above it as a sort of stereotypical soloist; and after that, you could be balancing with just pizzicato strings or a single wind instrument. It’s about switching from one thing to another and finding the right balance which for me is the challenge in playing this piece.

Pianistically challenging

The concerto feels fresh every time. I’m probably not talented enough for it not to be fresh, because I have to work at it: I can never just sit down and play it. I find it pianistically challenging enough to have to take it very seriously every time. The characters within it are so vivid. In the slow movement, there’s such ethereal tenderness and warmth that one can see how it inspired Schumann in the last movement of his Fantasie, Op 17.

The character of this piece is already quite obvious, and if you go for contrast I don’t believe you should underline things that are already obvious. It’s something that Beethoven does for you, and if you’re true to the characters that are there it speaks for itself.

The concerto is pianistically quite awkward in places, though possibly not quite as pianistically difficult as it sounds because it’s so well written. It lies quite well under the hands, which you can’t say for all of Beethoven’s piano music. He’s so bloody-minded he doesn’t really care if it’s comfortable or not. There’s a physicality about it, that’s the difficulty, and you can really sense that physicality, I think, when you hear it. The Fourth Concerto is, to my mind, the most difficult of the five, but perhaps doesn’t sound as obviously difficult to the listener as the Fifth, because the difficulties are far more subtle and concealed, and relate far more to the fragility of the music. The Fifth is incredibly robust.

Enthusing the orchestra

With the Fourth you can totally destroy a performance if you don’t have a good co-operation between yourself and the conductor. Whereas in the Fifth, good co-operation is, of course, preferable, but there’s something about the music which means it can take a bit more of a beating.

In pieces that are played a lot, like this one, sometimes I think you find that there are certain ways of doing things for the orchestra, certain ways of managing corners. If you don’t want to follow the path of least resistance, if you want to do things a little differently, it sometimes takes a bit of work to get out of the routine or the habit of doing it in a certain way – but if your approach is characterful, and your enthusiasm for the piece comes across, the orchestra usually follow.

A lot of the music I’ve recorded has been recorded many times, so I try not to think about what I’m doing in that context. Recording this piece with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Jiří Bĕlohlávek was very easy. It was just a pleasure. The orchestra were on top of it, Jiří was a joy to work with and it was just very straightforward. There were no unnecessary barriers. It was just a nice experience.

Involving the audience

I think the audience really does float away with joy in the slow movement. If you can manage the character and you can find the right sound, the first piano entry in the slow movement is one of those spine-tingling moments. Otherwise, I think it’s the vividness of the character of this piece which is responsible for a lot of its popularity. Goodness knows how many times I’ve played this by now, but there’s still something about the orchestration of that first chord which is so pleasing and satisfying. All these little details have a positive effect – this is a piece that we feel good listening to. It’s an extrovert drama with an introverted middle which ends with a dance, as do all Beethoven concertos; but it’s the roundedness of the journey, the overall experience, which allows us to feel that we’ve heard something truly complete.

Explore more great piano concertos

Brahms Piano Concerto No 2, by Nicholas Angelich

Grieg Piano Concerto, by Leif Ove Andsnes

Mozart Piano Concerto No 27, by Angela Hewitt

Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3, by Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 2, by Stephen Hough

Ravel Piano Concerto in G, by Pierre-Laurent Aimard

Schumann Piano Concerto, by Ingrid Fliter

Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 2, by Alexander Melnikov

Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No 1, by Yevgeny Sudbin

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