It is only fitting that it should be Paul Lewis to crown this Beethoven 250 year at the Wigmore Hall in the very month of his birth on the 16th or 17th December 1770.Paul Lewis has long been in the forefront of the concert world since he inherited the mantle for his integrity and understand of the great master of Bonn from his mentor Alfred Brendel.Continuing in the line of past masters from Schnabel,Backhaus,Kempff ,Gilels,Arrau and Serkin through Perahia,Goode,Ashkenazy and Brendel to today.It also interesting to note the significance of the key of C for Beethoven.Especially when one thinks of the 3rd piano concerto,fifth symphony and his final substantial piano works with his last Sonata op 111 and the Diabelli variations op 120.It is significant too that Paul Lewis should have chosen Haydn’s early C minor Sonata as companion to the Diabelli variations.It is in many respects the most Beethovenian of Haydn’s vast output of sonatas and was written in 1771 the year after Beethoven’s birth.
It was played with utmost delicacy and absolute fidelity to all of Haydn’s most precise indications.It brought the notes vividly to life with a wonderful sense of colour and fantasy.It was Serkin who told his disciples that if you do not discover something new every time you play a work then something is wrong.And in fact it seemed that Paul was discovering the work afresh with such subtle inflections and changes of colour reaching some truly sublime moments in the development section.Strangely it was more the warmth of a Curzon than the sweet bitterness of a Brendel.Every note was played with such devoted care but at the same time not missing the overall architectural shape and characterisation.The Andante con moto was played with a touching aristocratic rubato with a very telling hesitation before the final cadence.And how he breathes with the music like a singer just taking that fraction of a second between the question and the answer.There was a hidden melancholic sadness to the Allegro as he so poignantly allowed himself the time to lean on the expressive notes.The tongue in cheek reply to the last reprieve of the rondo theme was a delicious final stroke as was the real Beethovenian beefy final two chords – C minor indeed.No doubt anywhere.
50 years later Beethoven was conjuring ‘the sublime from the ridiculous’when he produced 33 variations on a little tune by Diabelli instead of just the one asked for. As Mahler was to say ‘all of human life is here’The work was composed after Diabelli, a well-known music publisher and composer sent a waltz of his creation to all the important composers of the Austrian Empire including Schubert, Czerny, Hummel , and the Archduke Rudolph, asking each of them to write a variation on it. His plan was to publish all the variations in a patriotic volume called Vaterlandischer Kunsterverein and to use the profits to benefit orphans and widows of the Napoleonic Wars .Franz Liszt was not included, but it seems his teacher Czerny arranged for him to also provide a variation, which he composed at the age of 11.
Alfred Brendel has described it as “the greatest of all piano works”.Martin Cooper says: “The variety of treatment is almost without parallel, so that the work represents a book of advanced studies in Beethoven’s manner of expression and his use of the keyboard, as well as a monumental work in its own right”.In his Structural Functions of Harmony, Arnold Schoenberg states “in respect of its harmony, deserves to be called the most adventurous work by Beethoven”.Beethoven’s first biographer, Anton Schindler, says that the composition of this work ‘amused Beethoven to a rare degree’, that it was written ‘in a rosy mood’, and that it was ‘bubbling with unusual humour’, disproving the belief that Beethoven spent his late years in complete gloom. According to Von Lenz,one of the most perceptive early commentators on Beethoven’s music, Beethoven here shines as the ‘most thoroughly initiated high priest of humour’; he calls the variations ‘a satire on their theme’.
There was a great sense of character from the very first note and a subtle sense of colour even in the ponderous first variation with a slight leaning into the bass on the repeats.The syncopation of the second was allowed to speak for itself so simply,drifting into the sweet melodic third even though shortening the left hand quavers!The sheer fun he had with the Allegro vivace of the fifth variation placing the notes with such impish glee.It was contrasted with the seriousness of the insistent trills of the sixth with its busy semi quavers chattering amongst themselves before taking wing with the seventh with its great resonant bass notes ringing out.The eighth was played with such tender care and with such a perfect sense of balance and clarity.There followed the ever insistent ninth and the rhythmic liberation of the tenth with some truly transcendental playing of great clarity and remarkable agility.Answered by the sly comments of the eleventh and the superb finger legato of the twelfth.It was indeed hilarious the way he played the thirteenth with two fingers poking fun at the almost too serious chordal exclamations.
This led to the beautiful sumptuous sonorities of the Grave with its whispered vibrating notes.A charming contrast between the staccato question and legato reply in the fifteenth and the explosion of the sixteenth and seventeenth played with great contrasting seriousness and vehemence.(Paul’s head moving idiosyncratically like his mentor Brendel at this point).The beautiful question and answer of the eighteenth was played with an operatic freedom and startling change of colours.The sheer fluidity of the nineteenth with its abrupt end led to the most profound series of chords played with painfully poignant feeling as it charts its way from 3/2 to 6/4.The spell was immediately broken by the trills bursting in and a meno allegro of startling expressive freedom.Immediately contrasted with the utmost baroque precision of the Allegro molto that Beethoven prefaces with ‘Notte e giorno faticar’ by Mozart.The transcendental activity of the twenty third was played with relentless nervous energy answered by the utter simplicity of the ‘Fughetta’.It was played with a beautiful sense of line and touching sentiment very reminiscent of op 110 Sonata.The buoyancy of the twenty-fifth was of an almost infectious dance rhythm and the gentle unfolding of the twenty-sixth was followed by the rhythmic impetus of the twenty-seventh.I can still remember Brendels unforgettable performance at the Royal Festival Hall which together with Serkin’s performance was so memorable for the jagged edges of the twenty-eighth and the frenzied abandon of the fugue in the thirty second.But the Adagio of the twenty ninth I will never forget Andrè Tchaikowsky for the way he made the rests really speak so eloquently.Paul as most other pianists here pedal over the rests that is far less poignant.Gradually descending or is it ascending to the heart of the work with the thirty first variation.And it was here that Paul made the rests speak so movingly as he played the embellishments with seemingly infinite inflections of almost bel canto proportions.There may have been just a fraction too much weight on the espressive top notes that showed that this was the vision still of a young man.The Fugue of the thirty-second variation was played with a clarity and rhythmic energy but just missing the total abandon and frenzy of Serkin but leading more gently to the final explosion,the burst of tension and the disarming search for the lost theme.
Diabelli’s little tune started as a waltz and finished as a minuet as Beethoven draws his last piano masterpiece to a poetic conclusion after having explored the most complete range of human emotions imaginable.
A magnificent performance by one of today’s leading musicians.
We can now look forward to another of today’s leading musicians, Angela Hewitt as she plays on the 19th December at St John’s Waterloo Beethoven’s mighty Hammerklavier sonata op 106 and his last sonata op 111 in C minor.The two works she has just recorded in Germany completing her recorded survey of the 32 Sonatas.