Paul Lewis' Brahms Album Is a Bit Too Sane

The flow is fine, the outbursts sound melancholy, the piano exudes a warm, full sound. Still, in this CD of works by Brahms played by the acclaimed pianist Paul Lewis, something is missing.

Much credit is due to Julian Schwenkner, from Berlin’s Teldex Studio, for the warm, presence-fraught sound of the piano in the ballads. Even more meritorious is the work of the engineer Tobias Lehmann, for the sound of the concerto recording, made at Berwaldhallen, a concert hall in Stockholm. The orchestra is detailed and the balance with the piano is excellent.

But we’re here to talk about the performance itself, by the English pianist Paul Lewis, 44, of works that Johannes Brahms composed in his twenties: Ballads Op. 10 for piano, and Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15. On the latter he’s accompanied by the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Daniel Harding. The disc is on the Harmonia Mundi label.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from this album. Paul Lewis is one of the most successful and most acclaimed classical pianists of this generation. He enjoys critical accolades and has won prestigious prizes. He has played a great deal of Beethoven and Schubert, which makes the new CD, devoted to Brahms, highly intriguing. Still, there is a certain difficulty about Lewis’ playing. On the one hand, it always displays depth and substance, brings out important elements in the structure of the work and has a warm, full timbre. All very impressive – but I’m not sure his recordings generate that elusive, subjective, personal element that produces a thrill in the listener, that frisson you get when a performance bowls you over.

Brahms’ first piano concerto is intended to bowl you over. In 1853, Brahms, who was then 20, met Clara and Robert Schumann. In addition to being an important composer, Robert Schumann was also a highly influential critic. In an article, he depicted Brahms as a genius who was destined to be at the forefront of the future of music. The article created new opportunities for Brahms and also prompted him to try his hand at new musical forms. He continued to concentrate on the piano, the instrument he played, like his new friend, Clara Schumann. Their friendship deepened when Robert Schumann was hospitalized in 1854 in the wake of a serious attack of depression and an attempt at suicide. Clara continued to give piano concerts and manage a household of eight children, with Brahms’ support and assistance. A friendship of long duration developed between them, along with a musical partnership.

Pianist Paul Lewis. A performance with wide appeal, but lacking darkness.
Molina Visuals

In that year, Brahms composed a sonata for two pianos, for him to perform with Clara Schumann. Finding the sound of the pianos insufficient to express his musical ideas, Brahms tried to work the musical themes into a symphony. However, he wasn’t yet able to cope with the complexity of a symphony. In 1855, he started to fashion a piano concerto from the same materials. Four more years would go by before the concerto had its premiere performance, in Hanover, with the composer as soloist.

During the period of the work’s gestation, Brahms wrote and erased; consulted with his friend, the violinist Joseph Joachim; corrected and discarded – and above all, pondered. Doubts, a thrust to perfectionism and serious self-criticism were Brahms’ hallmarks as a composer. This is perhaps what underlies the perpetual struggle – and the delicate balance – in his work between the intellectual, structured side and powerful emotional expressiveness. In his Concerto No. 1 for piano, his first great symphonic work, the balance is still fragile and at times buckles under the weight of the musical surfeit. In fact, that fragility lends the work a special power. Orchestra and soloist blend, but the relationship between them is fraught. The work’s structure seems to be held together with effort; it threatens to fall apart, while below the surface seethes instinctual energy, biting, somewhat dark.

Past performances

Many performances have conveyed that tension, as I understand it. The old recording (1958) by Leon Fleisher, with George Szell conducting, retains an exciting intensiveness. Maurizio Pollini has recorded the concerto three times; the second recording, under the baton of Claudio Abbado, is well-constructed and electrifying. Krystian Zimerman is sweepingly dramatic in his recording with Leonard Bernstein; and, far more restrained, Leif Ove Andsnes, with Simon Rattle conducting, is flowing though frenetic. And there are many more of the same ilk. Particularly memorable is the Glenn Gould-Bernstein collaboration. Bernstein told the audience that he and Gould were at fundamental loggerheads over the tempo of the playing, and over the interpretation overall, but that he would conduct the work as Gould wished out of respect for the soloist and because of the value of his insights. The result, as recorded, is not as slow or anomalous as Bernstein suggests, and in the end gained fame mainly because of the conductor’s preliminary remarks.

As for the new CD: Lewis and Harding opt for a generally dark hue. The flow is slow but unbroken. The outbursts in the first movement are emphasized and create a melancholy sound, not stormy or angry. The second movement is lyrical and soft, with a fine touch. Wistful hues are preserved in the rapid third movement. The sound of the piano is warm and full, the balance between soloist and orchestra is excellent. There are many virtues here, and the accolades are understandable; it’s a performance that will have wide appeal. Still, I found something lacking on the instinctual, frenetic, dark side, which I believe is the concerto’s emotional foundation.

The same dark, instinctual element is present in the four ballads that constitute Op. 10. It was an excellent idea to combine the piano concerto with the ballads. They were composed in 1854, at a time when Brahms was writing for small ensembles – works for solo piano, lieder and a trio. He had already produced an impressive number of works, including his three beautiful sonatas for piano, the only ones he wrote in that genre. The four ballads are independent works, but are musically and associatively linked. Brahms dedicated them to his musician friend Julius Otto Grimm, but the conventional view is that they were inspired by his new friendship with Clara Schumann, who was an extraordinary pianist. Characteristic of works by the young Brahms, they are highly romantic, both in the power of their emotional expression and in their associative connection with narrative from poetry and literature. I find them riveting, especially the first one, whose inspiration is the text of an emotionally charged, tragic Scottish ballad.

There are numerous exciting recordings of the ballads, and here, too, Lewis contributes a performance of distinctive added value. The flow is slow but sweeping, with minor changes of speed and light emphases in the punctuation. The intensity shifts gently, rises and suddenly thunders without affecting the timbre of the piano, which remains consistently warm and full. Still, I was left with longings for Krystian Zimerman, in a 1980 recording, the dramatic sweep of Emil Gilels in 1975, and certainly Glenn Gould’s insanity in a 1982 recording, one of his last. Compared to a pianist like Gould, the new album is well recorded, balanced and sane. A bit too sane.