Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Beethoven Piano Concerto Cycle
Piano Concerto No 5 (The Emperor)
New Zealand Symphony with Paul Lewis
Auckland Town Hall
August 12 – 14
Reviewed by john daly-Peoples
In the final concert of his three concert series, pianist Paul Lewis gave a magnificent performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto. The work which had gained the title of “Emperor” was one which Beethoven rejected because of its association with Napoleon. but has nevertheless prevailed
Beethoven was born in 1770, one year after Napoleon and like many of his generation, initially believed the French revolution with its ideals –of liberté, égalité, fraternité, heralded a new dawn, that mankind could be reborn, that a new society was imminent and that great men like Napoleon would lead the way to this new society.
Beethoven’s enthusiasm for Napoleon peaked with the Eroica symphony of 1804 but by the time of writing the fifth piano concerto he had lost faith in the man who was then at the gates of Vienna.
Despite the composers misgivings about Napoleon the piano concerto has all the features which stemmed from the revolutionary fervour of the time – notions of the heroic, the innovative and the challenging. This was evident in the music but also in Lewis’s approach to playing.
A great pianist can make Beethoven’s work seem relatively easy to play but is also easy to forget just how difficult a work like the Emperor Concerto can be to play.
Lewis’s mastery of the work was his ability to provide a real sense of cohesion and an understanding of the structure of each of the movements as well as the work as a whole. He never allowed the simple demonstration of his own technical facility to obscure his larger purpose.
He fully captured the textures, scope and power of the work and the heroic spirit as conceived by Beethoven is revealed to be both physically robust and spiritually refined. From the virtuosic opening of the first movement through the dramatic contrasts of the Adagio to the impressively optimistic finale, Lewis demonstrated an effortless strength as a concerto performer. There was a cerebral focus and an understanding of the work in the way he played. Rhythmically, he was in total control, never too soft or loud, never to fast or slow, with his magical fingers conjuring up the emotions of the piece and at all times he was in sync with conductor Gemma New and the orchestra
Few pianists would have the sheer technical skill, understanding and stylishness he demonstrated.
Praise should also go to Gemma New and the NZSO who gave a sympathetic accompaniment. They also realised the full symphonic nature of the work ensuring that the drama, subtlety and excitement of the concerto was fully expressed.