Pictures at an Exhibition – Paul Lewis

A few weeks ago we heard Paul Lewis’ recent programme in Birmingham.

BACH – BUSONI        ‘Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ’  BWV639
BEETHOVEN            Sonata in Eb major  op.27 no.1

BACH – BUSONI        ‘Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland’  BWV659
BEETHOVEN            Sonata in C# minor op.27 no.2  “Moonlight”

LISZT                        Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort  S203
Unstern! sinistre, disastro  S.208
Richard Wagner – Venezia  S.201

MUSSOURGSKY       Pictures at an exhibition

The big draw was the Mussourgsky which I had never heard live. As a teenager I got to know the orchestral version and couldn’t imagine how the original piano version could match it and I never heard the original until many years later. Now I prefer it. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I dislike the orchestral version – they are clearly different.

I had very limited knowledge of Mussourgsky, Yes, there is Night on a bare mountain, Boris Godunov and Khovanshchina and didn’t he become an alcoholic. So how come he wrote apparently only one piano work and that a masterpiece, unlike say Chopin, Liszt or Debussy. The answer is that Pictures did not come from nothing – Mussourgsky’s mother was a pianist and he began lessons aged six.

I hugely enjoyed the performance. I’m often dismissive of commentators and teachers who talk about getting ranges of colour from the piano, maybe because I think I can only get one sound from it. However, if by colour we simply mean varied textures and their voicing and dynamics, then I understand and this was provided in abundance. I particularly appreciated Paul Lewis’ manner at the keyboard – no superfluous gestures and no showmanship. It was all about the music and the sound conveyed it all.

I have a soft spot for the ‘Moonlight’ sonata’s sister so it was nice to hear both together and have each preceeded by a Busoni transciption of a Bach chorale prelude.

I have read in textbooks of the ‘strangeness’ and advanced harmonic language of Liszt’s late piano pieces. One hearing is insufficient to appreciate or make sense of what we heard. I’m happy to go with the performer’s judgement that they are worth playing and hearing.

Here is another pianist Evgeny Kissin playing part of the Mussourgsky.

And here is Melanie Spanswick talking with Paul. Amazingly Paul does not come from an instrument-playing household. He borrowed records from the local library from the age of 8 and did not realise there was anything unusual in being able at the age of 4 to teach himself tunes on a bontempi keyboard.

And here is a different Busoni transcription played by a different pianist Murray Perahia.