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Music Review: At Tanglewood, Paul Lewis takes audiences through a musical gold mine of Beethoven's piano concertos

7.30.22 Andris Nelsons conducts Beethoven (3).jpeg

BSO Music Director Andris Nelsons conducts guest pianist Paul Lewis, who played four out of five of Beethoven's piano concertos during Friday's and Saturday's concerts. Piano Concerto No. 5 was played during Sunday's afternoon concert.  

LENOX — Tanglewood on Friday and Saturday led us on the first two of three journeys into a gold mine. This gold mine was a cultural one that held the precious objects of a musical genius, one of the leading cultural icons of our Western world.

The genius was Beethoven, and we were treated to a survey of the first four of Ludwig van Beethoven’s piano concertos. (The Fifth Concerto, performed on Sunday, is reviewed in subsequent column.) The four range from the mid-1790s, when the composer was 25 years old, to 1806, when he was in his mid-30s. Those years were formative for Beethoven, who arrived in Vienna — then the cultural capital of Europe — as a young man, hungry for fame and fortune, and armed with the most formidable piano-playing technique of his generation. He wrote his first concertos with publicity in mind, moving from the salons of his early patrons to the concert halls of his newly adopted city, which provided a significantly expanded audience to witness his prowess.

Our guide this weekend has been Paul Lewis, the English-born pianist, who has made a name for himself as one of the foremost exponents of the music of the early Romantic period: Beethoven and Schubert, especially. He is an extraordinary artist, expressive in the extreme, but keeping his expressiveness within the subtlest bounds. This is no flamboyant showman, sporting designer clothes, lifting his arms high above the keyboard, or gazing theatrically at the heavens. His musicality is all in the playing: crystal-clear articulation, the most exquisite phrasing, the pearliest tone. And he seems to have an extra-sensory connection with Andris Nelsons, who was conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra this weekend, so that every moment of collaboration, every phrase exchanged, every flexing of tempo and dynamic balance was flawlessly shared.

On Friday we heard the first piano concerto Beethoven composed — it is listed in his published compositions as No. 2 — which owes its inspiration to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as do many of Beethoven’s earliest works. Beethoven idolized Mozart, and Mozart’s presence could no longer threaten Beethoven’s ambition — as Joseph Haydn’s did — for Mozart had died, at the tragically young age of 35, one year before Beethoven arrived in the capital city, whilst Haydn, Beethoven’s teacher and mentor, was still very much alive and actively producing masterpiece after masterpiece in those same years.

We also heard the Concerto No. 3. The difference was telling. In the former, Beethoven was actively indebted to Mozart’s model, with a small orchestra and careful outlines and limitations. By the time of the latter, some years later, Beethoven had vastly expanded his vision and grasp of the potentialities of the genre. Concerto No. 3 explores the darkness and turmoil of C minor — a key that fascinated Beethoven (it is the key of the Fifth Symphony and many other works) — and traverses the emotional gamut from dramatic extroversion (we now have the powerful enhancement of trumpets and drums) to the profoundest poetry.

On Saturday evening, the same musicians performed Beethoven’s Piano Concertos No. 1 and No. 4, the former written not long after No. 2 (but published first) and the latter composed in 1806, in the middle of Beethoven’s most productive decade — that of his 30s — when he created almost all of the works for which he is best known today.

The Piano Concerto No. 1 would be far better appreciated if it were not overshadowed by the later, greater concertos. It is still in the Mozart/Haydn mold but already betrays the quirky originality of the 30-something composer in its abrupt harmonic shifts and the rhythmic irregularity of its finale. The slow movement is a gorgeous Largo, where the clarinets of the Boston Symphony could shine (trumpets, timpani, oboes, and flute are banished from this luxurious dream).

Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 is from the midst of that most productive decade. It is a work that opens with reiterated chords on the piano alone, a sound that Lewis can invest with fullness and promise. The slow movement, with its famous depiction of Orpheus taming the Furies as they attempt (and ultimately succeed) in thwarting his unprecedented mission of rescuing his beloved Euridice from the Underworld, was breathtaking in the power and precision of the orchestra and the luminosity of Lewis’ phrasing and tone. Throughout the work, the fully developed Beethoven style is present, with its inexorable crescendos, intense dialogue, and rhythmic drive.

Both concerts offered the additional and welcome feature of new (or newly arranged) works by American composers Julia Adolphe and Caroline Shaw, the former splashy and disparate, the latter narrowly focused on single chords and notes, with an emphasis on shifting textures. They need more performances before they can be properly assessed, but they suggest talented creators to watch.

MUSIC REVIEWWhat: Andris Nelsons conducts Julia Adolphe and Beethoven featuring Paul Lewis, piano

When: Friday, July 29

Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox

What: Andris Nelsons conducts Caroline Shaw and Beethoven featuring Paul Lewis, piano

When: Saturday, July 30

Where: Koussevitzky Music Shed, Tanglewood, Lenox

Jeremy Yudkin is Professor of Music at Boston University. His gives pre-concert talks for Tanglewood weekends every Friday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. at Lenox Town Hall.

Jeremy Yudkin is a professor of music at Boston University. His gives preconcert talks for Tanglewood weekends every Friday at 2:30 p.m. and Sunday at 11 a.m. at Lenox Town Hall.

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