Is it possible to hear the teacher’s influence, phrase for phrase, in the student’s playing? Sometimes, perhaps, there are echoes of ideas here and there. But if Paul Lewis’ interpretations Thursday night at the Perelman Theater betrayed anything of Alfred Brendel, it was only in the big idea that it is the thinking musician’s job to express strong, personal opinions.
The mid-career British pianist finished out this season’s extraordinary run of pianists visiting the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society (Mitsuko Uchida, András Schiff, Julius Drake) with a recital of standards. His particular take on the Brahms 4 Klavierstücke, Op. 119 was perhaps the least distinctive in a distinctive bunch.
A single movement of Beethoven, though, was instructive for anyone listening for instances of Brendel brushing off on his student, since it was not to be. It was instead a concise lesson on how small a decision can alter the character of a piece.
The first four bars of the Eleven Bagatelles, Op. 119, open by laying out the beginning of a clearly unhappy tale. But Brendel, in a recording, upgrades the mood to near-fury in the next four bars by speeding up. Lewis takes a different tack. He is, in fact, a passionate player, but in general he avoids the kind of split-second contradictions in mood with which Brendel feeds his drama. Lewis kept the scope of emotion in the first bagatelle more along the lines of concerned. He functions by keeping a certain amount of emotion in reserve.
The styles of these eleven pieces vary — some are formally proportioned, others fantasy-like. In the latter, Lewis was liberation itself, making connections with other Beethoven piano works and their experimental, message-from-the-edge qualities.
Lewis paired the Beethoven with Haydn’s Piano Sonata in E-flat Major, Hob. XVI:49, which created a kind of dialogue between the two works. The first movement of the Haydn contains a cell strikingly similar to the famous four-note motif of the Beethoven Symphony No. 5. More significant, perhaps, was the emotional range Lewis gave the stormy middle section of the second movement. Here is a Beethoven moment in Haydn, Lewis seemed to say. In the Baroque-leaning Piano Sonata in B Minor, Hob. XVI:32, Lewis pointed at a more Scarlatti treatment of keyboard sounds.
While Schubert isn’t far from the other composers on the program, Lewis, in choosing the Allegretto in C Minor, D. 915 as his encore, said quite a lot about himself. In his tempos and fine gradations of dynamics, he perfectly conveyed the emotional truth of each phrase. By staying within certain bounds, he also preserved the short work’s cohesiveness. Brendel is a little rougher with this same music, and here you concluded that the student had exceeded the master.