The pianist Paul Lewis has given concert performances and made recordings of Ludwig van Beethoven’s complete sonatas, concertos and the Diabelli Variations (Harmonia Mundi). Lewis recently completed a two-year project to perform all the mature piano works from the last six years of Franz Schubert’s life. The affable Lewis spoke to Listen at New York City’s Steinway Hall.
You played cello initially.
How long did you play the cello?
It wasn’t for you.
I love the cello, it was just hard to love when I was actually playing it. I played from eight to fourteen, but made very little progress. [Laughs.]
When you switched to piano, did you find that the cello playing was at all helpful?
It’s hard to know really. I was such a bad cellist, I hope nothing stuck from that. Of course
now, when you play chamber music, you try to imitate the sound of string instruments, and try to incorporate as much of that into your playing as you can. But I think that’s just something I do now as opposed to then. I was literally scraping away. It was dreadful.
I imagine there is some emotional strain — as well as discovery — that occurs with the intensity of these Beethoven and Schubert projects. What was it like to go so deep?
I first played a complete cycle of Schubert Sonatas in 2001. It was like having a personal relationship, in a sense that it has its ups and downs. Sometimes it’s rewarding and enlightening, and other times it’s a struggle — and you take the highs with the lows. It’s hard not to be so involved when you’re so immersed in it. So it becomes very emotional and personal. At the same time I think it’s good to keep a distance from that, save it for the concerts — not have it follow you around in your daily life.
You don’t need to be in character all day.
No, hopefully not.
What were some discoveries you made that you hadn’t anticipated after spending all this time with Beethoven and Schubert?
The main difference between the composers for me, that became more pronounced the more I played them, is that Beethoven always has an answer whereas Schubert almost never does. Schubert has this overriding sense of irresolution, that there’s no resolution, just
— as opposed to the triumph of Beethoven.
Yes: resolution; triumph in his middle period; later almost a sense of rising above everything. This feeling that you get in Opus 111. In some way Beethoven resolves; he has an answer. It’s interesting to speculate as to what that tells you about the personalities of these two composers. [Laughs.]
It’s interesting to think, too, of this idea of Beethoven and transcendence — transcending the form, perhaps, after working with it so much. Those late sonatas have a very liberal structure.
It certainly develops in its own unique way, later on. A lot people say that Schubert struggled with the form as well. I’m not entirely sure that he did. If you look at the late Schubert sonatas, you have this incredible sense of space, whereas Beethoven often develops at high speed — everything is dense and busy.
But listening to your Beethoven again, I was struck by the legato and the rubato and the space that you give him. A lot of your movements aren’t geared toward shock and awe. There is a real reflection. I listened to your “Pathétique” this morning: a real sense of space and time.
Beethoven can be traditionally seen as this tempestuous, boisterous, outspoken unwashed
character, and that’s there for sure, but there’s a balance there, too: greater tenderness and space and time in there. When you spend years with this music, I guess you go through life seeing the balance differently when you come back to it.
My last movement of the “Pathétique,” maybe my tempo is slightly slower. There’s a little bit of melancholy there, a little bit of nostalgia.
Nostalgia even for the opening movement!
Yeah! For the drive and self-assurance of that opening movement. The last movement seems to be more reflective.
I’m reminded listening to these sonatas that Beethoven is always symphonic.
How do you take that into account? Do you try to establish a symphonic sound from the keyboard?
Absolutely. All the time. The greatest piano music requires thinking in terms of anything other than piano sound. [Laughs.] That’s the great thing about the piano: it can be many things. If it’s just a piano — a pure piano sound — I find it less interesting somehow. I think music that pushes you to think in terms of an orchestra or the more specific sounds of chamber music — like the slow movement of Opus 2, No. 2 could be a string quartet. Easily. And vocal as well: the last movement of Opus 90, it has a slightly Schubertian feel to it and you could imagine it sung. I think you have to be thinking consistently in these terms.
Do you stay conscious to the point of ‘Am I on a bass string right now?’ Are you conscious of the orchestra in front of you?
Yeah, even to the point where, when I play with rubato, I ask myself the question: ‘If I were a conductor, could I indicate exactly how this rubato works?