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Paul Lewis: The thinking person’s pianist

Paul Lewis is internationally recognised as one of the leading pianists of his generation.

Paul Lewis, piano
The Women's Musical Club of Toronto, Walter Hall
Thursday, October 18, 2012

Toronto finally got a chance to experience what the rest of the musical world has known for some time – that British pianist Paul Lewis is one of the great artists of his generation. And it's not the Toronto Symphony or Koerner Hall we can thank for this revelation, but the Women's Musical Club of Toronto, now in its 115th season.

Lewis opened up the WMCT's new season with a recital he's been touring around the world for a year or so now, featuring the last three piano sonatas of Franz Schubert, all written in an insanely creative, concentrated period of a few months near the end of the composer's life.

Paul Lewis has concentrated on one composer for long periods of time before in his career – a few years back it was the complete Beethoven piano sonatas, then the Beethoven concertos, then other works by Schubert. Every time, his powerful, lyrical mind has created art on the highest scale – music critic Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times declared Lewis's recording of the complete Beethoven sonatas the single greatest version ever committed to disc.

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And now we know why Paul Lewis is held in such high regard. For close to two hours on Thursday afternoon, this thinking person's pianist opened a musical door and allowed us to roam freely in Schubert's mind, heart and soul, as well as our own. When the music is in the hands of a master artist like Paul Lewis, the listening experience can be quite profound.

The world that Lewis opened up was full of phantoms and dreams, musical logic twisted by obsession and fate. Speaking of one of the movements of the sonatas, Lewis told me he feels Schubert's music is like bolting upright after a nightmare, only to discover the nightmare hasn't stopped. That sense of being grounded in musical logic and reality, in the proportions of sonata-allegro form, while being thrown into a world of fantasy and imagery, is what makes these pieces so special.

What makes them so difficult to perform, as well as to listen to, is that they are notoriously long and undisciplined. But in Lewis's hands, the vagaries of Schubert's imagination seem impeccably controlled, sensible, perfect. Occasionally, even he couldn't overcome the obsessive-compulsive disorder built into some of Schubert's structures, but for the most part, there wasn't a note that seemed out of place, or a phrase that was overdone. While dramatic and lyrical in his playing the works, Lewis is also strictly unsentimental in his approach. He pushes them forward with a strong, unwavering pulse that's Beethoven-esque, and doesn't give in to the temptation to linger with each individual phrase, and thus lose the sense of the whole. He becomes a champion of the total musical worth of these sonatas. And the sheer physical beauty of his playing, his use of touch, discreet pedalling and dynamic contrast made the WMCT Steinway – a box of hammers, when all is said and done – sound angelic.

Five hundred lucky souls were able to spend an afternoon with this remarkable artist on Thursday. Next time, the privilege should be afforded to considerably more.

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