SCHENECTADY — British pianist Paul Lewis gave his debut Sunday afternoon at Union College’s Memorial Chapel in an all-Beethoven program that showed why he’s considered one of the world’s foremost interpreters of this composer’s works. The recital, which was part of the Union College Concert Series, was Lewis’ first concert of his two-week U.S. tour.
Lewis performed Beethoven’s last three sonatas, Op. 109 (1820), Op. 110 (1821) and Op. 111 (1822). The pieces are all difficult but Lewis had ample technique to handle any demands. While his playing seemed effortless, the marvel was the music. Beethoven wrote the pieces when he was in his early 50s and struggling with financial and health issues, and the works flow with substance, depth and originality.
For all the sonatas, Lewis opted for a lyrical, romantic approach with a singing tone, a middle range of dynamics that had varying degrees of subtlety, phrases that had lift, well pulsed beats, solid tempos and, except in the last sonata, a heavier than usual degree of pedal. Always the poet, Lewis departed only in the final sonata to challenge and demand.
Opus 109 was interesting with its two short movements and the final theme and six variations, in which each variation became more complex than the one that preceded it in harmony, drama and mood. Long passages of fast scales and trills were in unusual time signatures. Lewis was focused and intense, applied forceful attacks, and sang the melodies with much feeling.
In Opus 110, the two movements moved along gently with some bright, dry attacks before the finale’s slow, melancholy melody became a fugue that grew in drama and chromatic complexity. Lewis applied more volume and a bit less pedal to achieve greater clarity. His pacing was excellent.
Lewis was superior in Opus 111 and got inside the music to make it sing. Most of the keyboard was used from the first movement’s great rumbling bass to the second movement, which had a section toward the end that was like a music box with trills and a sweet melody all in the high treble. Another unusual section had trills in both hands that became trills in the right hand that resolved almost mystically into the opening theme. Lewis was completely involved.
No encores for the near-capacity crowd, but the next pianist on the series is Jonathan Biss on April 12.