January 19, 2007 5:46 pm

Paul Lewis, Wigmore Hall, London

No doubt partly through the success of his recordings, which are running along in parallel, Paul Lewis has won quite a following for his cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. This is not because he is the kind of pianist to court controversy. Audiences will have been attracted more by a guaranteed quality of musicianship.

His Beethoven cycle runs through to the end of this year with performances at venues throughout the UK, Europe and the US. Two CD releases have appeared so far and Thursday’s Wigmore recital presented a typical mid-point selection of less familiar and minor sonatas, with the “Moonlight” sonata thrown in as the popular draw.

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They all sounded rich as velvet. Lewis never makes an ugly sound in Beethoven, which is not necessarily a good thing. His rich tonal palette is undeniably classy, but it does not easily allow the quick reaction to detail on which the early sonatas thrive. Here we often had sound for sound’s sake: repeated chords that were perfectly graded in touch, changes of key that registered as changes of sound world rather than anything else – all fascinating as an insight into how Beethoven may have been thinking with his fingers as he composed, but only one part of the story.

The smaller sonatas in the first half – the elegant, two-movement Op.54 and the Op.27 pair, the “Quasi una fantasia” No.1 and the “Moonlight” – did not quite take off. There was much beautiful playing, but not enough incident or variety. Too little seemed to happen. With the grand E flat Sonata, Op.7, the second half lifted and regained the level that has made earlier instalments of this cycle so rewarding.

It is clear that Lewis is never going to show us the young Beethoven, with his rough, cussed sense of humour, warts and all, but perhaps the composer would be flattered by a cycle of the sonatas that portrays him with such handsome playing.

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