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By Chicago-based, triple-Grammy-winning flutist, speaker, writer and teacher, Tim Munro.

On 4 December 2017, Paul Lewis sat down at the piano in Elisabeth Murdoch Hall to perform the first concert in a series that is nothing short of epic. Focussing on the great keyboard composers – Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms –Paul Lewis shows there’s plenty more to celebrate in these timeless works. The insights he is giving into piano writing demonstrate a unique and generous commitment to expressing the heart of the repertoire, one that listeners are unlikely to forget. 

In Grammy-winning flautist and writer Tim Munro’s interview, the star British pianist takes us behind the scenes, elaborating on his fondness for great programming, the relevance of classical music and into the characters of the composers themselves.

Tim Munro (TM): Composers sort of ‘talk’ to each other within a program. What do these ‘conversations’ reveal of each of the three musical ‘characters’ in your programs? And does it change these characters to put them side-by-side?

Paul Lewis (PL): I don’t think it does. It shouldn’t really, and I think a performer shouldn’t set out to do that. When you put different pieces next to each other – different musical languages side by side – the idea is that it ought to shed a certain light on its neighbour. When you have something fresh in the mind, certain aspects of that language perhaps highlight aspects of a different language. That’s what’s interesting about programming, but I certainly don’t set out with the idea of modifying how I play something just in order to do that. The programming has to do it itself.

TM: As a pianist you constantly adjust your playing to suit the composer’s approach to the instrument – fitting your hands into theirs in a sense. How do each of these composers’ ‘hands’ feel different?

PL: Yeah, it’s interesting that you can, really, it’s absolutely true. You can feel physically the hands of those composers. Haydn – it feels very clean under the hands. It’s almost like a pianistic ‘detox’ where every single sound, rather like Mozart, every sound matters and has its own colour and character. And Beethoven is an unusual case in that he was a great pianist, but his music often feels surprisingly unpianistic under the hands. He’s just too bloody-minded about getting his message across, I guess. And Brahms is incredibly pianistic for certain types of hands. You can feel that he had big paws, and he writes in ‘pianistic blocks’ – that’s how it feels. And I guess if you have very different hands then it becomes unpianistic, because you have to sort of modify it and play with sort of quite different fingerings than I guess Brahms intended. But that’s across the board. It is interesting how you can feel physically the difference. And Chopin’s hand, for instance – I know it doesn’t come into this context – he’s one of the most extreme examples of that I guess, where you can really feel the delicacy of his hand and the long fingers. And if you don’t have that, then it becomes a problem.

TM: These works were mostly written by men at the end of their lives. Is this ‘old man music’ in any sense? Does a ‘late style’ exist or is that a silly notion?

PL: I think ‘late styles’ do exist. Not that composers knew that they were about to die; it’s not that kind of late style. It’s just a question of languages changing as time goes by, and I guess gathered experience feeds into that. But I think we often perhaps read more into that than there is – like there is something valedictory about a composer’s last works. Well, if the composer didn’t know that it was valedictory then it’s irrelevant. But, yes, I think what one can say in as much as style changes that there is a late style.

TM: These works would have been performed in a small chamber, by a quieter original instrument. How do you play these in a large concert hall? Do you reach out or try to get listeners to lean in?

PL: It’s essential. People talk about ‘projection’ in concert halls. That’s easy. You can learn how to project sound quite simply. It’s an element of good piano playing knowing how to get the sound to the back of the hall. It’s much harder to create a real pianissimo that has a core – to not lose the core of the sound – in such a way that people feel that the walls of the hall are shrinking. That’s the biggest challenge, but it’s what you have to do. This type of music, which was written for the salon, relies on that, it needs that. In today’s modern concert halls, even in say the Royal Albert Hall in London, it’s still possible to shrink that space. And it’s important that we try to do it. It also requires a certain amount of concentration, effort and engagement from the listener. The performer can’t do it all on their own.

TM: A bigger question: Do you think of yourself as transporting us back to the time of Beethoven, Brahms and Haydn, or of transporting them to 2018? Or neither?

PL: I think it’s neither. The thing that makes this music relevant is that what was relevant 200 years ago is still relevant today. It’s neither a case of us going back there or them coming here. It’s that what matters then still matters today. It’s something we can relate to and engage with. It keeps us in touch with something really important, emotionally. If that wasn’t the case, then what would be the relevance of classical music? I know people talk about this all the time, but to me that is the relevance. And it’s something one can more easily grasp – I feel – in a live concert, rather than putting a CD on. It’s just something fundamentally human, which transcends time.  

Paul Lewis’s epic exploration of Haydn, Beethoven & Brahms continues at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on Thursday 27 September and Monday 1 October.

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