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Paul Lewis on the epic conclusion to his 3-year piano journey.

Great Performer Paul Lewis brings a monumental three-year project to its close on 24 September. He speaks to Tim Munro about the project (pairing Haydn sonatas, Beethoven piano works and Brahms late piano pieces), the Diabelli variations and Melbourne Recital Centre.

Haydn vs. Brahms vs. Beethoven

I wanted to spend two years focusing on Haydn sonatas. This project came about because I thought it might be fun to find a context for them. Brahms was diametrically opposed to Haydn. Haydn, who’s mischievous, who wants to surprise you, to make you laugh. Brahms sometimes smiles, I suppose, but his is the opposite way of music making: serious, earnest.

Beethoven was the glue – looking in both directions. A lot of Beethoven’s late bagatelles are funny, in a Haydnesque sense. (There’s also a lot of Beethovenian humour! He builds up expectations and then chucks something completely different at you. He likes to shock you into laughing.) And some of the Diabelli variations look to the future, towards Brahms – a kind of premonition of that more inward-looking approach.

Extreme Directions & Diabelli Variations

The Diabelli variations is one of the great peaks of the repertoire. It poses all sorts of challenges: technically, it’s very taxing; musically, you have to make sure that 33 variations are very clearly characterised and yet you have to maintain clarity within clear sections and make clear where the line goes.

Beethoven takes you in all sorts of extreme directions on the way to the summit, but there has to be a feeling by the time you get to the last variation that there’s a logic to the journey. When you get to that final variation you feel that you’ve climbed a mountain. It is like you can look in all directions at once. 

The Diabelli variations is the best part of an hour’s journey, with its challenges and ups and downs. But when I play that waltz theme, I have a sense of excitement. It’s a piece that I just love so much, and I love to perform it. I learned it in my mid-twenties, so I’ve been playing it for twenty-something years. There’s a sense of it being an old friend, in a way.

Time Flies When You’re Playing Brahms 

I’ve had a great time [during this project]. These things just fly past. I was learning three of the four late Brahms sets for the first time. In fact, my performance of Op.116 last year at Melbourne Recital Centre was the first time I played that piece.

Melbourne Recital Centre is one of my favourite places to play a recital. It’s visually unique, for a start. The feeling of visual warmth matches the acoustic, which is warm and yet clear enough to get the detail you want to get across.

The audience in Melbourne I always find to be very concentrated, very attentive. It’s wonderful, because that gives the performer energy. It’s one of those places that you don’t have to think much about how to manage the situation, the acoustic, the setup. You can just play music and enjoy.

Paul Lewis performs Beethoven’s Diabelli variations, Haydn and Brahms at Melbourne Recital Centre on 24 September

Interview by Tim Munro, a Chicago-based, triple-Grammy-winning flutist, speaker, writer and teacher.

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