Paul Lewis, Royal Festival Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Ever since Alfred Brendel took Paul Lewis under his wing, this 38-year-old British pianist has been in the fast lane, but his beginnings were not privileged.

His passion for music was ignited by weekly visits to the record department of a Liverpool public library, and his pianistic talent only declared itself in adolescence. Now his recordings of Beethoven and Schubert sonatas enjoy benchmark status; this year he’s been invited to give the first-ever complete Beethoven concerto cycle at the Proms.

A recital by him in eclectic mode seemed therefore promising. Beginning with Mozart’s Adagio in B minor, he brought such clean articulation to this austere and plangent work that every note became an equal part of the whole. Most pianists turn it into a lament, but for Lewis it became a monument, its understated emotions kept under cool control; the major-key resolution of the repeated opening phrase and its falling response was beautifully achieved.

After which we plunged into the turbulent waters of Schumann’s Opus 17 Fantaisie. Or rather should have, because here Lewis’s playing was restrained, even muted. Schumann didn’t need to spell out (although he did) the wildness which should permeate this work - that intention is instinct in every bar - yet Lewis clothed it in severely classical garb. Its march, which should feel carefree, was careful to a fault; the final movement was fastidiously shaped but lacked all excitement. Lewis’s achievement was to take this piece prisoner: a strange way to treat one of music’s great paeans to liberation.

There were flashes of cold fury in Liszt’s ‘Vallee d’Obermann’, which followed, but this rendition was marmoreal, with no trace of the abandon which Liszt himself specified. Ending his recital with Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ sonata, Lewis predictably avoided the usual route with the rapid opening repetitions, which other players turn into a burst of artillery fire. Taking his cue from this work’s French nickname - ‘L’aurore’ - he instead made them gently purr. This is one of Beethoven’s most viscerally exciting piano works, and it too emerged tamed, its jaggedness smoothed, its sharp textural contrasts ironed out; the rondo had perfumed grace, but was passionless. To project Beethoven adequately at the Proms, this pianist will need to recover his youthful fire, and fast.