Until Paul Lewis was named Instrumentalist of the Year by the Royal Philharmonic Society, people went to hear this young pianist largely out of curiosity, after he received an apostolic blessing from Alfred Brendel. Everyone wanted to check out Brendel's boy. But with his acclaimed Beethoven cycle underway, matched by a brilliantly crafted series of recordings from Harmonia Mundi, he's now drawing the cognoscenti purely through his art.
On 20 June he continues that cycle with three middle-period sonatas. He takes pleasure in the programming itself - not grouping the sonatas chronologically, as many pianists do, but juxtaposing works from different periods to reflect unexpected light on them.
And though he has heard Brendel and Pollini playing some of these sonatas live, he has not studied other pianists' cycles. "I wanted to get as far away from the standard approaches as possible," he says. It was only last year that he learnt the "Appassionata", and he hadn't heard a performance of it for the previous 12 years. "So I came to it fresh. I could discover it."
Six years ago, he cut the umbilical cord with Brendel, but recently he went back to see him, specifically for his advice on playing Beethoven's "Hammer-klavier" sonata, which, for Lewis, is pianism's Everest.
"There's nothing more difficult," he says. "It's not so much the technical difficulties. It's simply extreme, in so many different directions - physically, intellectually and emotionally. The stamina needed to keep that line in the 20-minute slow movement is absolutely draining. And what Beethoven asks you to do immediately afterwards in that fugue - it's bloody unreasonable!" Walking on stage to play this, he says, you must abandon all thoughts of perfectionism.
But he'll be damn near perfect on Tuesday, partly in response to the challenge of the auditorium. "You hear people talk about 'Wigmore nerves' and it's true - everything is on display, you've nowhere to hide. There's something very concentrated about it, when you walk on stage - you feel challenged. It always feels like an occasion."
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