The field of Beethoven piano concerto cycles has reached a point of saturation. To stand out, the performers, especially the pianist must be utterly distinctive. Paul Lewis breaks out of the crowd providing a banquet for Beethoven lovers... even those with jaded ears.
I listened to this set in numerical order and I was initially conscious of some idiosyncratic phrasing from the soloist but that changed to total immersion in Beethoven’s genius.
On first hearing, the opening of Lewis’s solo in the first movement of the first concerto impressed me as rather less imaginative than I would have expected. The rest of the movement corrected this impression. The second movement, Largo, is disarmingly tranquil. Delivered as heartfelt poetry, “It floats”. In truth, all the slow movements to follow, whether Adagio or Largo, are played with the same rapt absorption. The third movement is exhilarating where in the joy, the pulse and the humour are clearly conveyed by soloist, conductor, and orchestra alike.
Of these concertos, the first two are “classical”, the third concerto has clearly has romantic buds but even being in a minor key, has an air of optimism throughout. Lewis’s performance reflects these characteristics most convincingly. Number four is a leap into the romantic and Lewis and Bělohlávek are well adjusted to the sombre and serious mood to the extent that their performance is as good as the very best versions I have heard.
The fifth concerto is the most celebrated, a festive work on a large scale that is heard here to be just that. The orchestral texture points to a large orchestra and leaves behind the “period” approach. Again a superlative, thrilling performance.
Bělohlávek and Lewis work hand-in-glove, completely in agreement throughout the cycle, achieving ideal balances between piano and orchestra. I have to mention that I have not heard a piano more faithfully reproduced than on these discs recorded by the BBC.
Without discounting any of the keyboard titans who has gone before, Lewis is much more than competitive. We all have our favourites whose performances, quite often, are imprinted as the touchstone by which to judge others. Let me just say that I enjoy these new performances immensely and, after returning to them often over the past few weeks, find them captivating.