HAYDN Piano Sonatas HobXVI (Paul Lewis)
Paul Lewis has finally turned his attention to Haydn. Hurray for that, for it’s a superb fit; it’s also clear that he has absorbed the experience of working with Alfred Brendel as a young man, and the results are nothing if not personal.
For this first disc (surely there will be more) we get four masterpieces that occupy different aspects of the composer. We enter Haydn’s world via the E flat Sonata (No 49), whose superficially flippant mood disguises deeper feelings, which become apparent the moment the music touches on the minor. You can occasionally hear Lewis vocalising but it’s a very minor matter that certainly didn’t distract me from his playing. The extended slow movement combines the Classical poise found in Brendel’s reading with a warmth of feeling that is very touching.
Highlights are many but the B minor Sonata (No 32) is special indeed, Lewis relishing its chewy textures, never smoothing over its edges, which makes the moments where there’s a softening of tone all the more effective. In the final Presto he doesn’t go hell for leather but instead offers a grim determination that connects it clearly to the first movement. Brendel is slower here but still conjures a ferocity of intent that can also be found in Andsnes’s recording, alongside which the faster Hamelin arguably sounds a touch too brilliant, though his clarity is astonishing.
The genius of Haydn’s sonatas is that they can take so many different artistic approaches. Lewis plays up the contrasts in the opening movement of the C major Sonata (No 50), compared to which Hamelin is comparatively introverted, though both delight in the extraordinary flight of fancy in which Haydn indulges before the start of the recapitulation. Here, though, I did find Lewis’s acoustic a bit over-generous, which slightly takes the edge off the impact of silence in Haydn’s irregular phrasing.
Lewis ends with the G major Sonata (No 40), whose unassuming lyricism conceals the sheer imaginative daring of what is to come, with the movement turning out to be a set of variations pitting major against minor. Lewis offers the full gamut of emotions here, emphasising the G major theme’s wistful air at an unhurried tempo (at nine minutes, this movement is a full two and-a-half minutes longer than Hamelin’s, whose upbeat tempo is effective in an entirely different way). Bavouzet, always alluring, treads a middle ground here. Haydn follows this with a Presto, though he adds ma non troppo. Hamelin is undeniably thrilling here, and his wit, like his articulation, is deliciously dry, as if he’s sending up the notion of virtuosity itself. Lewis, taking matters at a slightly steadier pace, finds a more muscular jocularity and reminds us of how much Beethoven learned from his sometime teacher.