International Piano meets ... Paul Lewis

Friday, March 8, 2024

Paul Lewis tell us what music is practicing at the moment, what works he would love to learn and which composers are the most underrated

Paul Lewis (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)
Paul Lewis (photo: Kaupo Kikkas)

Who were your principal teachers?

Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Alfred Brendel, whom I met while I was a student at Guildhall and he came to give a masterclass. I studied with Joan from 1990 to 1995 and then had lessons with Alfred from around 1993 to 1999.

Beyond your teachers, who have been the biggest musical influences on you?

Lots of people that I’ve worked with really. Every time I played with Bernard Haitink was like a masterclass in how to allow music to speak for itself, how to not get in the way, which unsurprisingly usually means it sounds better! I’ve worked with the tenor Mark Padmore over the years and he’s always very inspiring – he is such an incredible storyteller and when we work together there is so much that I learn from him and that I try to bring into my solo playing.

If you could take just one recording to a desert island, what would it be?

I’m going to take Smetana’s Overture to The Bartered Bride – probably played by the Czech Philharmonic with Jiří Bĕlohlávek. It’s my happy piece. It doesn’t matter what kind of miserable mood I’m in, if I play that, I’m always smiling at the end of it.

What was your most recent musical discovery?

Glazunov’s Second Symphony. What a piece! It has an amazingly beautiful slow movement with a wonderful clarinet solo. I’m going to get to know the others …

What was the last thing you were practising?

Schubert. I’m in the middle of a two-year Schubert project and I’m playing all the piano sonatas so that’s my main focus.

Which works would you most love to learn but haven’t yet got around to playing?

Bartók’s Second Concerto. I’ve wanted to play that since I was a student but I think it’s probably a bit too late for me now. I’m 51 and although I might not be ‘old old’, this is the kind of thing you need to get into your brain and on to your hard drive early – the sooner the better. I’d also love to play Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze – I don’t think it’s too late for me to do that.

Which piano concertos should be heard in concert more often?

Copland’s Piano Concerto. I played it in September – it’s a piece I wanted to play since I was a teenager and I finally got around to it. I heard it for the first time when I was 15 and played it for the first time at 51. Better late than never! It’s a wonderful piece and quite important I think in terms of American music. It was written in the mid-1920s and has a lot of jazz influence. It’s a great audience piece and I’ve no idea why almost nobody plays it.

Which composers are the most underrated or wrongly neglected?

I would say Hugo Wolf – perhaps the most original of all lieder composers. I’ve no idea why you see his lieder so rarely on concert programmes. He’s so original – he can be outrageous, he can be shocking, he can be funny, he can be heartfelt … but for some reason he’s not the sort of composer that makes audiences flock to the concert hall. They don’t know what they are missing!

What are the major works you’re playing over the coming months?

All of the Schubert sonatas. This two-year project culminates in the spring and summer of this year, when I play all 12 sonatas in this series in four recitals over one week. So come April I’m basically carrying all of them at the same time, which will be a challenge.

Do you have a personal favourite of your own recordings?

I don’t really listen to my own recordings. If there is one thing that stands out in the recording process, I think it’s when I recorded Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations – probably 15 years ago now. We spent a few days recording it, going through it section by section rather than variation by variation, which would have taken much longer. We got to the end of the second day and thought at that point that we’d got everything we needed; then the producer suggested that I play it all the way through as a performance. He and the sound engineer came and sat in the hall so it felt like I had an audience. And what ended up on the CD is mostly from that take, because it felt like a genuine performance. I learnt something from that: of course a recording can be an opportunity to achieve a certain level of detail that you might not always get in the concert hall, but you should never forget the feeling of a live performance. That’s what’s so important, I think, even on recording – especially on recording. It has to be just as vivid in many ways as in the concert hall and you have to really try to get that across.

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2024 issue of International Piano. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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