Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto at the Royal Albert Hall

Paul Lewis and Ben Gernon

Paul Lewis put the magic back in to the familiar thrills of the Emperor concerto. The style of this performance was Beethoven as forward-looking: Chopin rather than Mozart, romantic virtuoso rather than contrapuntal baroque fireworks. The persuasive runs and trills of the first movement weren’t simply exercises from a piano manual, Paul Lewis made them breathe and sing their music, highlighting the musical themes in the interplay between the lines of music in the two hands. It seemed there were some shortcuts in ornamentation but this was a live performance with television’s scrutiny included.

In the slow movement too, Paul Lewis conjured magic. He has a precise touch, dynamics not particularly pronounced but certainly quite varied tempi. The finale: building the suspense out of the slow movement, we know what is coming but the arpeggios were fresh and bright after building the suspense; Paul Lewis again thrilled with the magic of this music.
The performance trick in the third movement seemed to be the BBC Philharmonic very firmly on the march beat, just short of foot stomping; the result emphasised the rhythmic fluidity of Paul Lewis’s piano work. Unfortunately elsewhere the BBC Philharmonic had some ensemble problems. Packed hall, there was extensive applause although no encores and the smiles on the performers’ faces acknowledging the applause looked a bit strained: maybe it hadn’t been easy.
The new commission from Tansy Davies was attractive and used a large and diverse orchestra with some unconventional instruments: I noted a metal sheet like a garage door in the percussion section. I struggled to understand the piece until I placed it as what a sixties or seventies experimental rock band might have moved on to present, had they had the resources and the intellectual concentration to achieve it. I was thinking Genesis or Yes; a nearby promenader agreed, citing Van de Graaf Generator. Approaching it from the classical music tradition, that places it as a development of the Paris electronic music workshops and the instruments, so think also Boulez.
Still nearly 30°C walking home along the side of Hyde Park, the remains of the sunset glowing in the west.


Prom 15: Paul Lewis plays Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto

Tansy Davies: What Did We See? (suite from ‘Between Worlds’). BBC commission: world premiere
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, ‘Emperor’
Brahms: Symphony No. 2 in D major

Paul Lewis (piano)
BBC Philharmonic
Ben Gernon (conductor)