Andrew L. Pincus | Rambling About Tanglewood: Turning three composers into one

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LENOX — Crowds rush to hear celebrity pianists like Lang Lang and Yuja Wang. Connoisseurs know that when Paul Lewis is on the program, you just go.

The English pianist has earned a welcome at Tanglewood in recent years with a series of engrossing concerto and recital performances, perhaps most notably one-night surveys of the three last sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. He returns Thursday, Aug. 2,  in a Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms program, part of two interconnected projects he's pursuing. The other is a survey of some of the approximately 52 (depends on who's counting) Haydn sonatas.

Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms "really feel like a single body of work," Lewis says. For Tanglewood, Thursday's program is the first installment in a series of Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms recitals that he's touring to musical shrines around the world over the course of three years. He'll play three Haydn sonatas and shorter pieces by Beethoven and Brahms.

"It's the same thing," the modest pianist said as he discussed the twin projects backstage at Tanglewood. "I wanted for years to play Haydn sonatas, some sort of series of Haydn sonatas, and almost went for that, just Haydn. But in the end, I wanted to find a context, so I put it in a context of Brahms and Beethoven."

Lewis, 46, is not your typical celebrity virtuoso in other ways. He never won a prize in any major competition the four or five times he tried. He heard of a pianist who had entered 10 competitions a year for 10 years in hopes of getting engagements.

What's the point? Lewis asks.

"You see some musicians who suddenly get a break and have to play lots of concerts — that wouldn't have worked for me," he told BBC Music magazine. "You have to grow into it and know how to handle it all."

Still, to start the Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms project, Lewis had to overcome a case of what he calls "Brahmsphobia." It wasn't until he entered his 40s that he appreciated the riches that awaited in Brahms' music. It happens to many musicians, he said.

"When I think of my issues with Brahms in the past," he said at Tanglewood, "it was this contradiction between something that is desperate to be released, you know, so desperate to get out. But it's restrained somehow by the perfection of his compositional craft. I used to see that as a problem. I don't see it as a problem anymore. I think the friction there is fascinating."

Both series launched last year. Both will be recorded, with two Haydn CDs already out. The Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms series is scheduled to end in 2020 with Beethoven's monumental "Diabelli" Variations as the principal work. Beethoven is the "glue" that holds the programs together, Lewis says. "And with the `Diabelli' Variations, you're standing on the mountain top looking in all directions, past, present and future."

In a seeming paradox, Lewis, the critic of competitions, recently took on the role of artistic director of the Leeds International Piano Competition — England's equivalent of America's Cliburn competition and Moscow's Tchaikovsky.

But again, he's breaking the mold. He has launched a broad outreach program and held first-round auditions in three places — Berlin, New York and Singapore. The semi-finals and finals will take place in Leeds in September. He chairs the jury, but leaves the day-to-day operation to his staff.

"I wanted to try and take the politics out of piano competitions," he said. "The jury is made up mainly of performers. There are no teachers. There's nothing against teachers at all, but often you see on juries of piano competitions teachers who take their students around with them. They go from one competition to another. So I wanted to get away quickly from that."

Fascinated as Lewis is by Haydn's powers of surprise and joy, it's the Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms trinity he keeps coming back to.

"The remarkable thing about these great compositions is that we're still discovering things in them more than two centuries after they were created, still relating to things that are so human about this music," he said in the announcement of the two series. "In a very basic sense, their beauty never fades. And perhaps it is even enhanced in a world in which everything is so fast, so loud, so extreme. The chaos that so often surrounds us today makes the need for serenity and beauty more acute than ever."

And there's certainly no shortage of material to work with.


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