ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT ARTS & CULTURE

Paul Lewis gets to the heart of the matter

Some pianists launch their career by challenging the work of the composers they play -- making a piece their own with a radical re-interpretation. The young Glenn Gould took J.S. Bach at an unheard-of speed, while Vladimir Horowitz found an unplumbed neurotic intensity in Robert Schumann.

Paul Lewis, the British pianist who comes to the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday and Thursday to play Beethoven's Second Concerto, sees his job as to become entirely transparent. The New York Times' Bernard Holland, in fact, described Lewis as playing Mozart and Schubert with no middleman.

"It's always an interpretation, because it's coming through you," said Lewis, 37, whose shaggy hair and drawstring shirt make him look a bit like a juggler on his way to a Renaissance fair. "But I don't believe you have to underline your own personality. It's not about you -- the music is the key thing. I absolutely try not to get in the way of it."

Despite the brooding character who appears on the cover of many of his CDs for the Harmonia Mundi label, Lewis comes across in person as musically serious but down to earth. Engaging and easygoing in the lobby of the downtown Standard hotel -- when he was last in Los Angeles in April -- he speaks passionately not only about his mentor, pianist Alfred Brendel, but also about the difference between the British and American editions of "The Office."

Lewis had spent the previous evening playing Mozart's Concerto No. 12 in A at Walt Disney Concert Hall: The Times' Mark Swed described the concerto, which Lewis played with the Australian Chamber Orchestra, as "exceptional for its melting eloquence" and deemed Lewis "a wonderfully fluid player."

The pianist expressed his musical vision in a piece he wrote for Britain's Guardian newspaper on the compositions of Beethoven: "No matter what you do, how far you go or how long you spent with these works, the music will always be bigger than you."

Total immersion

Lewis grew up in a modest Liverpool home almost entirely free of classical music. "To be completely honest," he said, "there was nothing on at home besides John Denver."

By 8, he was digging through a public library with an extensive music collection, including Brendel's recordings of Beethoven's sonatas. He also found his way to concerts by the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.

"It's hard to remember in detail," he says of the initial impact of classical music. "But I just remember being on an absolute high. After a Liverpool Phil concert I'd be floating for days."

He was drawn to the piano in particular by its "ability to sound like other instruments, to create other kinds of colors and sounds."

At 14, he enrolled at Chetham's School of Music, set in a 15th century hall in nearby Manchester, where even local students board for the sake of immersing themselves in music. That Lewis did: He remembers his conservatory years as a great and somewhat raucous time. "There was nothing really illegal," he pledges, "besides the drinking."

Songa Lee, a fellow "Chets" student now working as a violinist in Los Angeles, remembers the school having flashier personalities and musicians already famous for being prodigies. But Lewis was, in his teens, focused and "with two feet on the ground."

"When I think of Paul," she said, "I think of him at the piano playing away. He was so easygoing. I think he broke out at 3 o'clock in the morning once and climbed over the gate to get curry and chips, and took the elevator to the girls' tower. I think that's the worst thing he ever did."

While Lewis' personality doesn't seem to have changed much from his student days, his taste in music has.

"After I got to Chets, and practiced, things moved on pianistically," he recalled. "Your fingers start to move faster than you're used to. It's easy to be excited by the virtuosic repertoire -- Balakirev's 'Islamey,' Rachmaninoff."

But as he got older, he wasn't feeling it.

"Music that's full of high jinks, and millions of notes per minute -- it's kind of thrilling, but you sort of hit a wall with it. At least I did. But the Austro-German classical repertoire, the possibilities are endless. It's the scope, the possibility of it."

Fully centered

Instead of ranging around a classical canon that is vastly larger than it was when Lewis' idols -- Brendel, Richard Goode -- were coming of age, the pianist has dived into the heart of things. That is, he's tackling not only the center of the classical tradition, but also its hallowed masterpieces: Liszt's Sonata in B minor, Schubert's deathbed sonatas.

At the center of Lewis' repertory is Beethoven. He's devoted the bulk his career to recording all 32 piano sonatas in four sets totaling 10 discs; the last set, Vol. 4, which includes the composer's difficult last three sonatas, took the Gramophone Award for record of the year in 2008.

As with his attraction to the rest of the Austro-German canon, it's the challenge that draws Lewis.

"I think Beethoven, when he writes, has a certain idea in mind, and he doesn't care how he achieves that," the pianist says. "He makes it your problem. He makes indications of what you're aiming at, but he doesn't make it easy."

A composer like Chopin, Lewis said, expresses himself through the notes on the score, but with Beethoven there is much more.

The famous "Hammerklavier" sonata, for instance, is about strain, and demands it from the performer. "The awkwardness, the extreme difficulty of it, is essential to its character," he says. "You have to feel that you're grinding, pushing yourself to the limit, and maybe a little bit beyond it."

Lewis is also drawn to the depth of Schubert, especially, he says, that moment when the composer received a diagnosis of syphilis -- in those days a death sentence. "There's that point where it all changes, where the emotional level goes up and the number of notes went down. Schubert is about belief."

(His next CD release, in September, will be Schubert's "Winterreise" with British tenor Mark Padmore.)

This week, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Lewis will play Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto, which he likens to the Mozart concerto he played at Disney Hall. The composer, who wrote the piece at the end of the 18th century, was still very much under the sway of Mozart at the time.

"It's a beautiful, fresh, optimistic piece of early Beethoven," Lewis says. "A conductor once said to me, 'a piece from when Beethoven was still writing nice music.' It has a lot of humor -- the last movement can be funny."

The concerto is also, for all its classical-era balance and order, an anomaly for a first-movement cadenza the composer wrote much later, and in his more tumultuous late style. The piece then, Lewis said, requires him to play in two eras at once.

Back to the family

Lewis' career has been full of the nearly constant touring of the active soloist: The pianist has three small children with his wife, Norwegian cellist Bjorg Vaernes, back home, in a rural part of England about halfway between London and Oxford, and he often breaks up tours to go home and visit his family.

He knew, of course, what he was getting into when he enrolled at Chets as a teenager. "It's important to remember that it's a privilege as well," Lewis said. "To be able to play the music you love, to pass it on to people. As frustrating as it gets -- it's very stressful sometimes, spending 12 hours on a plane -- it's a great life."

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