Pianist Paul Lewis explores worlds in miniature in Ozawa Hall recital

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LENOX — The connection is clear. Beethoven studied with Haydn, and early Beethoven works can be mistaken for late Haydn, and vice versa. Brahms was so in awe of Beethoven that it took him until his 40s to let his first symphony go out into the world.

That was the background for Paul Lewis' Haydn-Beethoven-Brahms recital at Tanglewood Thursday night. But it wasn't exactly the point the English pianist was making. Instead, by segueing smoothly back and forth between pieces, he showed a line from three Haydn sonatas to miniatures by Haydn's successors.

You could enjoy this evening with the masters for the lessons it taught. You could also sit back and revel in marvelous piano playing in some wonderful, lesser-known music. Beethoven sounded like Haydn on extra hormones. Brahms sounded like - well, like himself.

Above all, the playing said: why shout when speaking to the point says so much more? Imaginative ornamentation graced the Haydn sonatas.

The program was the first in multi-year series by Lewis at Tanglewood, and other major venues, linking the three composers. The Haydn sonatas, in turn, are part of Lewis' long-term project to record a selection of those sonatas.

Another link among the pieces was the composers' use of silences. Lewis, with his crisp, clear touch, made use of those trenchant pauses to create momentum, surprise, suspense and - ultimately - to penetrate to the core of the music. The contrasts often pulled you up short, wondering, what next? But then the music raced or roamed ahead the more arrestingly.

This aspect was immediately apparent in the opening work, Haydn's Sonata in E-flat, Hob.XVI:49. Lewis played around with the frequently recurring theme in the expansive first movement so that it never came back quite the same. The lyrical slow movement, by contrast, sounded like Beethoven in its waxing passions.

It was natural that the next work should be Beethoven's Eleven Bagatelles, Opus 119, short pieces that sometimes belie the title by making much of little. Lewis, who has played Beethoven here to powerful effect before, probed the many moods, from lyrical to jesting to philosophical.

From there, it was a natural progression to Brahms' Four Pieces, Opus 119, music of ultimate refinement, with harmonies going well beyond Beethoven's, and a romanticist's introspection veering off from Beethoven's. The set ended in a "rhapsody" that sounded like a kind of swinging triumphal march.

Two more Haydn sonatas, the B minor, Hob XVI:32 and the G Major, Hob. XVI:40, enclosed Beethoven's Six Bagatelles, Opus 126. The last of the Beethoven group summed up the evening's effect: a world of beauty and mystery enfolded in five minutes of music.

The Haydn sonatas, similarly, were strongly varied within the scope of their time and form. The concluding two-movement G Major ended in a wild dash that brought the Ozawa Hall audience to its feet in a wild ovation. A bit of Schubert served as an encore.

          




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