It is a big step for a solo pianist to play the Royal Festival Hall, capacity well over 2,500 (five times Wigmore Hall). Paul Lewis gave his first recital there in 2010 and returned in this season’s International Piano Series with a programme that went beyond the classical repertoire in which he has made his name to reach a suitably big conclusion.
In a venue this size it helps to make a full, hall-filling sound. Lewis’s rich and warm tone gives the impression of enveloping the audience in a luxurious cushion of velvet – generously sonorous, without hard or ugly edges, but also without cut-and-thrust, or keenly differentiated contrasts.
When Maurizio Pollini played Bach here in 2011, the sound picture in the hall seemed arid. Not so with Lewis, who cast a warm halo of atmosphere over a pair of Bach/Busoni Chorale Preludes. Then it was on to Beethoven, home ground for this pianist (Lewis has recorded a complete cycle of the Sonatas). The two Opus 27 sonatas he chose – the small-scale, fantasia-like E Flat Major and much-loved “Moonlight” – do not seek to plumb great depths. Lewis brought a rich cello sound to No.1’s slow movement and his moon cast a summer night’s glow over the opening of the second. Everything was satisfying as long as one did not mind what was missing – the young Beethoven’s rough humour, his quickness of thought, his cussed brusqueness.
In the second half Lewis moved into more ambitious repertoire. A group of three brief pieces by Liszt short-changed the sheer strangeness of Liszt’s imagination in his later years, but Lewis was good at reaching down into the music’s inner calm.
Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is a very different kind of challenge. For this Russian virtuoso set of pictures in music Lewis upped his scale, turning “Bydlo” into a thunderingly massive cart, and getting the Catacombs to breathe a grand, hallowed air. There was much to admire, though the range of expression is still not wide enough – the market at Limoges was too tidy, not enough bustle, the unhatched chicks sweet things, not a cheeky rabble. From here Lewis is taking his recital programme on to Barcelona, New York and – interestingly – Moscow.