British pianist Paul Lewis returned Sunday afternoon to open the Union College Concert Series at the Memorial Chapel in a masterful performance that thrilled a huge crowd.
He offered a traditional type of program with three stalwarts from the list of 18th and 19th century composers: Haydn, Brahms and Beethoven. The three works he chose were, however, very varied.
Lewis began with Haydn’s Sonata in E minor (1778), one of his rare sonatas written in the minor key. This tonality made for some interesting chromaticism and harmonic choices. The three movements had a lovely lyricism with pastel colors. Lewis used a full rich tone, a wide range of volumes and elegant phrasing. Tempos were brisk when needed with the cheerful finale done with a light touch and good pacing.
Three of Brahms’ “Intermezzi, Op. 117” (1892) provided a strong contrast. Highly romantic and atmospheric, they had a complexity that suggested hidden depths. The first was an introspective lullaby in which Lewis played only with mezzo-voce dynamic levels in a dreamy, lingering, poetic style. The second with its flowing arpeggiated patterns had more drama but was still in softer volumes. The third was even darker with plummy rich tones and inner voices. Lewis played all of them with much elegance and well sung melodies. The crowd loved it.
Beethoven’s “Thirty Three Variations on a Waltz of Anton Diabelli, Op. 120” (1819, 1823) is a tour-de-force for any pianist. While Beethoven might have had contempt for Diabelli’s theme, which he called a “cobbler’s patch,” it piqued his genius. In his early days, he was the talk of Vienna for his sensational improvisational skills at the piano at parties. With such gifts, he explored every possibility here that we mortals could hardly imagine. Beethoven turned the theme inside out with rhythm and tempo changes, technical difficulties from the extreme to a child’s song, volumes from strident to tender, mood changes that exploded like a door slamming to a door opening on a tranquil landscape.
The emotional investment that a pianist has to make to handle all this over a sixty minute period is almost as vast as the pianistic challenges.
Lewis was remarkable: intense, committed, detailed, on top of the demands. There was a sense that with Beethoven, Lewis was in home territory. The crowd jumped to its feet with wild applause. And Lewis had just performed this program last week in London. An exhausting feat.
Up next is Oct. 27 with Curtis Institute violinist Grace Clifford and pianist Joseph Liccardo; followed Nov. 3 with the Brentano String Quartet in the world premiere of
Matthew Aucoin’s new work, the Union College’s second commission and works by Mozart and Ravel.
On Nov. 24, French pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard returns with works by Carter and Debussy sandwiched by two of Beethoven’s most famous sonatas (“Moonlight” and “Waldstein”). Dec. 8 brings the debut of Uzbek-born pianist Roman Rabinovich in works by Zipoli, Debussy, Satie, Gershwin, Granados and Stravinsky. The Boston Camerata returns Dec. 14 for the series’ classic holiday program in a medieval Christmas complete with period instruments and songs.