As is still the case with many classical music events these days, Prom 6 was a concert of two halves. Unusually, however, it was a performance of two first halves. Either side of the interval in this all-Beethoven affair the Royal Albert Hall patrons were treated to an overture (Egmont and The Creatures of Prometheus) followed by a piano concerto (Nos. 1 and 4). With not a symphony in sight, the undoubted main attractions of the evening were the latter, with apt scheduling reuniting soloist Paul Lewis with Jiri Belohlávek and his BBC Symphony Orchestra just days after the release of the same partnership's complete Beethoven Piano Concertos recording.
There is little point any longer in referring to Lewis as a 'rising star' of British music-making, as his place in the pianistic stratosphere is firmly established. An acclaimed proponent of Beethoven and Schubert, his stage manner is self-effacing whilst retaining a distinctly authoritative air – not dissimilar to that of his mentor, Alfred Brendel. His account of the Piano Concerto No. 1 was a juxtaposition of heft and humour, avoiding the superficial flashiness that is all too easily bestowed upon this work, yet without shunning virtuosity altogether. The first-movement cadenza, brimming with austere sturm und drang, came to a whimsical end with Lewis almost sheepishly casting aside the final G major chord, as if he were a child who had suddenly realised the petulance of his raging tantrum. The ensuing Largo was characterised by Lewis' soaring lyricism, culminating in a sumptuous exchange with clarinettist Richard Hosford at the movement's conclusion. Supreme unity between soloist and orchestra was the highlight of the finale, with Lewis and Belohlávek's BBCSO engaging in plenty of entertaining to and fro.
For all its positive attributes, however, this was not necessarily an 'ideal' performance of the first concerto. Lewis' passagework occasionally lacked lucidity, whilst his tone production in quieter moments sometimes sounded forced at the apex of a phrase. Whilst not major hindrances, any concerns one might have had about these matters prior to the second half were put firmly to rest by a sublime reading of the Piano Concerto No. 4, in which the full profundity of Lewis' playing was able to take wing. Though the Andante con moto was taken a touch too fast for my liking – causing the strings' dotted rhythms to sound jaunty – we were privy to a glowing pianissimo from Lewis which, though exceedingly hushed, miraculously managed to fill the hall. Notes flowed from the platform like water from a Beethovenian spring in the outer movements, with the pianist's semiquaver and triplet flurries now adopting the pristine precision that had periodically evaded them in the first concerto. This was a kaleidoscopic performance of a kaleidoscopic work, brilliantly bestowed with a deft combination of tenderness, foreboding and, ultimately, elation.
Belohlávek was his usual understated yet vividly insightful self on the podium, evoking magnificent warmth of timbre from the strings whilst perceptively bringing unexpected inner lines to the fore. Whilst the ensemble wasn't always immaculate in the Egmont overture, there was plenty of fiery playing from the BBCSO. The horns' fortissimo in the introduction was nothing short of spine-tingling, and the woodwind peppered us with colourful, affectionate solos (the one exception being an unfortunate slip by the first oboist just prior to the coda – perhaps a combination of reed trouble and Beethoven's emphatic ppp marking). The harmonically ambiguous openings of The Creatures of Prometheus heralded a rambunctious account of this delightful overture, with crystalline clarity achieved by the violins in their scintillatingly swift rendition of the principal theme. Though both overtures might have been considered as preparatory bonus material, the enrapt Albert Hall audience suggested a much greater appreciation of these fine performances.
Paul Lewis will be making three more Beethoven concerto appearances this season in order to complete the cycle (albeit with a different conductor and orchestra on each occasion). On last night's auspicious form—particularly in No. 4—they are performances not to be missed.
Photo: Paul Lewis by Eric Manas