Busoni, Beethoven, Liszt, Mussorgsky; Paul Lewis, Sarratt Village Hall 28/9/13

  • Bach-Busoni: Nun komm der Heiden Heiland BWV 659
  • Beethoven: Piano Sonata op. 27 no. 1 in Eb
  • Bach-Busoni: Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ BWV 639
  • Liszt: Schlaflos! Frage und Antwort S.203; Unstern! sinistre, disastro S.208; Richard Wagner- Venezia S.201
  • Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition


The Sarratt Music Festival is a bit of an odd bird. A programme of two weekends of 2 concerts each with 5 days of children’s concerts in between, all in a sleepy part of rural Hertfordshire, does not sound the most conducive environment to great music-making. However, with appearances this year from the Hilliard Ensemble, the Budapest Café Orchestra, Leon McCawley (with LPO principal Peter Schoeman and principal horn and local David Pyatt), and none other than Paul Lewis, the Festival is an unexpected delight. Saturday’s concert saw Lewis in typically brilliant form in a programme juxtaposing the worlds of reality and ‘fantasy’, the prostrate humanity of Bach’s chorale preludes (as transcribed by Busoni) contrasted with the freewheeling structures of Beethoven’s two Quasi una Fantasia piano sonatas op. 27, the otherworldliness of late Liszt with the earthen vitality of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

Lewis’s playing was, as ever, irreproachable. From the first note of Nun komm der Heiden Heiland his mastery of tone was obvious, Busoni’s transcriptions requiring, in general, the most expressive thumbs or fifth fingers of any music in the repertoire. The chorale melodies, though surrounded by heavy, solemn octaves and delicate outer parts, always sang through with human warmth. One can hardly match the range of colours possible on the organ, but Lewis came pretty close in finding an effortlessly expressive vocality of lines often shared awkwardly between hands.

However, it was what Lewis did apart from playing that bothered me. I don’t really mind that we occasionally call Beethoven’s piano sonata op. 27 no. 2 the ‘Moonlight’. Clearly, something in Ludwig Rellstab’s description of the first movement as like moonlight over Lake Lucerne struck a chord with the general public, and the sobriquet stuck. Of course, such ‘inauthentic’ titling is an apt target for the lofty chuckling of those who would really love to think they know better, and Lewis’s preamble, in which he asserted the piece ‘has nothing to do with moonlight’ to knowing harrumphs from the audience, seemed a shame, especially since his interpretation had quite a lot to do with it.

Say what you will about the title, but Rellstab’s Romantic image has influenced our understanding of the first movement for years, and if one is going to laugh it off as external to the music, one should at least have the consistency to play what’s written, to ‘get back to the music’. Lewis’s reading of the first movement was in a familiarly dirge-like 4, not in Beethoven’s written alla breve 2, and the march rhythms – it is, after all, a funeral march – were consequently indistinct. To be clear, this was beautiful, elegant playing, just as we had heard in op. 27 no. 1; my issue is that it sounded exactly the same as all the performances in which ‘Moonlight’ sits unchallenged in the programme. Andràs Schiff explains this in his Guardian lecture series*, and demonstrates how an ‘authentic’ interpretation might be crafted. Schiff may be forthright and more than a little dogmatic, but he is admirably consistent in the link from his thinking to his playing.

The Moonlight (take that, Paul Lewis!) also showed a problem with the Sarratt Music Festival’s commendable selection of performers: big names need proper instruments, and proper instruments need big halls. The full-length Steinway Lewis played on was far too large for Sarratt’s impressive but still provincial village hall, especially for a player who can project a gorgeous tone to the back of the biggest concert halls in the world. As such, the finale of the Moonlight, though absolutely thrilling and improvisatory in its deftness, was often unpleasantly loud, especially Beethoven’s clangorous punctuating chords.

So too in an otherwise exemplary Pictures, where by the end of the Great Gate of Kiev the constant hammering of much of Mussorgsky’s lumpen piano writing had come to feel a bit of an assault on the ears. This is through no fault of Lewis’s, of course, merely a misfortune of ambitious event planning. Indeed, though his reading was rather conventional, there was practically nothing to fault in it. Particularly effective were the contrasting sonorities of Catacombae, the cavernous underbelly of a city and the sorrow of the buried dead chillingly and effortlessly evoked by Lewis’s now muscular, now delicate performance. Despite an over-loud piano, this was really exciting stuff, and a long ovation afterwards drew Lewis back to the piano for some late Liszt, the Klavierstuck, a quiet, meditative, and short piece showcasing his intensely, achingly lyrical tone and effortlessly aristocratic style.

It was in fact the short pieces of late Liszt which were the highlight of the evening. Experimental in form to the point of formlessness, under the right fingers these are arresting works, with Richard Wagner – Venezia (inspired by the death of said Wagner) the only one approaching anything like grandeur. With visionary harmonies and a whispered, totally sincere profundity, these short pieces seemed to descend on the post-interval silence from another world, and the silence reigning at the end was a measure of the intense focus Lewis drew out of audience that, though occasionally chatty, was mostly reverential of such an obviously unimpeachable artist.

*Schiff’s lectures on the whole set of Beethoven sonatas are worth a listen for anyone wishing to learn a thing or two about these pieces, or at least to have something to be outraged about. Find the whole series here.

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