An interview with Paul Lewis

The Hear Here! key work for December is Beethoven's 'Emperor' Concerto. Stephen Pettitt caught up with Paul Lewis, ahead of his performance of the work with the RLPO:

SP: The "Emperor" Concerto is a massive piece and undeniably it has a very grand title, although not one that Beethoven gave to it.  Does the piece match up to that title, or is it really a bit of a misnomer, as with the "Moonlight" Sonata, another piece that Beethoven didn't name?

PL: Well, in this case it just so happens that the title does fit the character of the piece fairly well, but it doesn't tell the whole story. The intimacy and tenderness of the slow movement show us a totally different world, as a much-needed contrast with the intensity of the outer movements.

SP: And is it a radical work, as the third and fourth piano concertos certainly are?

PL: It's certainly radical in terms of its scale and its character - there had been nothing quite like it before - but personally I find it much less radical than the fourth piano concerto when it comes to matters like form and originality of ideas. That's not to say it's a lesser piece though. Not at all!

SP: What particular demands, apart from actually playing the notes, does the work place on the soloist?

PL: Despite its grandeur, the Emperor is often surprisingly chamber-like in its scoring. One of the big challenges of the piece is to combine that kind of chamber balance with the more dynamic style of playing that it also demands. You sometimes have to play both roles at the same time.

SP: You’re playing an instrument very different from the instrument that the concerto was first played on, with a whole different range of colours. What does using a modern instrument bring to the music, and what does it take away, if anything?

PL: Personally, I think the huge range of colour that the modern piano can offer far outweighs any disadvantages. There are occasionally some problems of balance and clarity, but this is something for the pianist to be aware of, and isn't too difficult to overcome.

SP: Many people might wonder if playing a concerto is as demanding and intense experience as playing a sonata all by yourself.  Does the fact that in a concerto the pianist occasionally has a rest make it any easier?

PL: Whether you play the whole time or not, you're still completely involved in the music. The fact that there are seventy or so other musicians on the stage if anything makes the experience more intense than if you were just on your  own.  So no, it's not any easier.

SP: What does this concerto tell us about Beethoven's personality and his frame of mind at the time?

PL: That both were fairly uncompromising!

Stephen Pettitt

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