Haydn’s Piano Sonatas are becoming increasingly popular, but they still have a whiff of special interest about them. Like many pianists, Paul Lewis is a great enthusiast, and throughout this year’s International Piano Series – an indispensable element in the classical music firmament – he has been featuring them in the context of short pieces by Brahms and Beethoven. This Royal Festival Hall recital proved that he is completely inside their astonishing originality. Lewis has form in the epic sublimities of Beethoven, so it was a pleasure to hear him brilliantly recreating Haydn’s confounding of expectations, suddenly dipping into profound sadness or tenderness, and casting in music-gestures that seem to ape human characteristics and quirks with such accuracy. Haydn continually second-guesses you, and Lewis really understands this.
He opened, though, with Brahms, the classical-style romantic, and his Seven Fantasies. As a younger man, Lewis had a reputation for uncompromising seriousness, and it was very moving to hear him play these late works with such awareness of their restraint and resignation. His touch produced a lovely, translucent sound, and there was an understatement that encourages the listener to decide whether or not, say, the second piece, an Intermezzo in A-minor, is the saddest thing Brahms ever wrote. The sequence of three further Intermezzos (IV-VI) became a distillation of memory and introspection, and even the virtuosic closing Capriccio had the ring of energies revisited. There was no grandstanding or exaggeration, just Lewis getting under the skin of these eloquent, ambiguous pieces. It took a while for Haydn’s Sonata in C-minor to break Brahms’s spell, but Lewis’s process of surprise and neat handling of enigmatic endings soon made the music’s extreme irregularity lurking behind sonata form register in all its passion and anguish. Lewis then relaxed into the Andante, which he played with a keen awareness of the subtlety of articulation and phrasing, and the long, effortless trills were heavenly.
Lewis started the second half with Beethoven’s first set of Bagatelles, all seven of them in major keys and none slower than a mobile Andante, with much of the humour broad and emphatic – in the case of II’s coda causing Lewis to roll his eyes in disbelief, as he well might have done when Beethoven gets stuck in the repeated notes of V. The Presto VII sounded like a try-out for the opening of the ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, and throughout Lewis made way for the Bagatelles’ explosive humour, inventiveness and charm. He closed with Haydn’s late Sonata in E-flat, probably the most frequently programmed and – as Lewis’s performance made abundantly clear – an unashamedly public work. The speed he adopted suited its scope superbly, and he let the first movement take off in the elaborate passage work. The Adagio often leaked into the sort of rapture you get in late Beethoven, and Lewis’s imagination worked wonders in its unfolding fantasy. In the Finales of both Sonatas, Lewis dazzled us with the music’s wit and intricacy in playing that got to the core of Haydn’s mischief and sophistication. His encore moved into Beethoven-sublime territory with the G-major Bagatelle Opus 126/5.