The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
Alfred Brendel and Paul Lewis
Playing Schubert with no Middleman



Famously, Paul Lewis grew up in a home in Liverpool where the most sophisticated musical device was a small electronic organ. Both parents had little interest in music, only “occasionally, my dad would play one of his John Denver record.” Yet surprisingly, Paul had a tremendous musical gift and he started on the cello. However, he quickly concentrated on the piano and kept listening to records made by Wilhelm Kempf and Alfred Brendel. Once Paul moved to London to study at the Guildhall School of Music he fortuitously took a master class with Alfred Brendel. “I played him a Haydn sonata and was ready for him to tell me to give it up,” Lewis says. “Instead Brendel simply said, ‘Let’s keep in touch.'” When Lewis firmly decided to take on the career as a concert pianist, he remembered Brendel’s invitation and frequently visited the master at his Hampstead home for lessons. According to Lewis, “Sometimes the lessons would go on for five hours, and he’d analyzed every single bar in the Liszt Dante sonata, and at the end of it I couldn’t play a note! The effect of these early lessons was as if he had just dropped a bomb on my whole way of thinking about a piece. There was so much information that was new to me, I needed months away from the piece to really sort it out.” For some pianists this kind of challenge might simply have been too daunting, but Lewis thought, “My god, what a journey. I could see what a bottomless way this was of looking at music.”

Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in C major, D. 894



“It took me a long time to learn how to deal with Alfred’s lessons,” recalls Lewis. “I couldn’t just imitate him; I had to internalize it, occasionally react against him, and find my own way.” The experience of working with Brendel was exhilarating, and “it was astonishing to see at close quarters what he was doing,” explains Lewis. We talked about his ideas and the sounds he was trying to achieve; for me, that was when the light went on, and it’s still there. It was all about message – yes, we talked about use of the pedals, different timbres and colors, but you can talk about sonority and technique until you’re blue in the face – the real point is how to get the message across. With someone like Schubert, there are many layers, many things being said at the same time, shedding different light. The tricky thing, the point, is to get the delicate balance that conveys the message – and Alfred was the master of the message.” For Lewis, the message of the music is “more important than me,” and he is frequently more faithful to a score than others. Trying to get as close as possible to the intentions of a composer, his performances are direct, intense and deeply emotional but completely free of theatricality and impetuosity. Without doubt, Paul Lewis’s understated, thoughtful and intelligent performances are a much-needed breath of substance in the “march of mediocrity that defines postmodern society.”

Ludwig van Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3

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  1. Mr. Brendel is not my idea of a stalwart musical messenger. He is the epitome of the analytical and intellectual player whose musical sound is the last, and not nearly the ultimate consideration. I cannot abide his mechanical and “bangy” Beethoven.
    Having made this possibly controversial opening blanket disparagement, I can also say that anyone who can get a serious player to get still more serious about their musical process and results is OK by me. I have been a follower of many of Gyorgy Sandor’s ideas about pianism for many years, and have recently discovered Dorothy Taubman and Edna Golandsky’s ideas as well. None of these three really had serious careers, much less performance traditions based on their School as derived from their music-making. Yet their teaching has created wonderful results for many people. So, One’s playing is not equivalent to one’s musical mind and insight.
    Since Mr. Brendel was known for this trait even during his long recording and performing career, it makes sense that he has something to say and contribute. If it is not directly through his own music-making, well, I may feel this way, but clearly others do not.
    I have heard critiques of Taubman and Sandor that highlighted their “underwhelming” music-making, and thus I should not and cannot dismiss Brendel as an advocate of deeper musical thought simply because his musical results do not appeal to me. MBB

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