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Classical Notes

Paul Lewis looks for the endless possibilities

Paul Lewis is now deep into a Schubert piano immersion. Paul Lewis is now deep into a Schubert piano immersion. (JACK LIEBECK)
By David Weininger
Globe Correspondent / October 14, 2011

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Paul Lewis grew up in a Liverpool home that was almost devoid of music, save for his father’s collection of John Denver records. There was no piano in the house until Lewis began lessons at the relatively late age of 12, when his family bought an old upright for 50 pounds.

Yet, however improbably, Lewis has quietly emerged as one of the most gifted and insightful pianists of his generation, particularly in the music of Beethoven and Schubert. His recordings of the 32 Beethoven sonatas are among the few of recent memory to say something fresh about this well-trodden repertoire, and they do so with a remarkable sense of naturalness. He has also recorded the five Beethoven concertos and the Diabelli Variations to similar effect.

And he is only 39.

Lewis is now deep into a Schubert immersion. He has recorded the composer’s three song cycles with the tenor Mark Padmore and will release a two-CD collection of piano works next month. (All are on the Harmonia Mundi label.) Tonight he brings a program of Schubert’s Impromptus, Moments Musicaux, and the “Wanderer’’ Fantasy to Middlebury College. But that is as close as Lewis will get to Boston this season. Inexplicably, he has never played a public recital here. (However, the Celebrity Series of Boston has confirmed that Lewis will play a Schubert recital in January 2013.)

Speaking by phone from London, Lewis says that his musical education came almost completely from his local library, which was stocked with classical records. Weekly trips there acquainted him not only with the piano literature but also the symphonies of Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. “It was great, just to be able to lay your hands on stuff and discover it for yourself,’’ he says. “Of course, all that sort of thing’s gone now. I suppose there’s even more that’s available now on the Internet, and that’s wonderful. But just to be able to go there and browse, to pick something up, that was something that I’m very grateful to have had there.’’

There was no piano teacher at his school, but there was a cello teacher, so he was started on the cello at age 8 and soon realized that he had “no talent’’ for the instrument. Finally, at 12, came the ancient upright and proper lessons, and an entirely new world opened for him.

“It was just thrilling. The piano was physically my instrument. It kind of saved me in a way. I don’t know what else I would’ve done, really, with this fascination with music.’’

A master class with Alfred Brendel in 1993 led Lewis to begin studying privately with the master pianist, an association that lasted the rest of the decade. Lewis can still remember his first lesson with Brendel, a famously demanding teacher. Lewis brought Liszt’s “Dante’’ Sonata. He and Brendel spent five hours, without a break, on the piece, often analyzing it detail by detail, bar by bar. The next day, “I physically couldn’t play the piece anymore. The effect had been so devastating - he’d just dropped a bomb on my whole conception of it.’’

Like Brendel, Lewis has a somewhat narrow repertory and plays little contemporary music. “This is going to sound terrible, but I don’t feel a duty to play new music. I think the one duty of a performer is to play the music that you feel totally convinced by.’’

For now, he is content - blissfully happy, even - to play mostly Schubert. He recalls a stretch in 2001-02 when he was similarly occupied with Schubert’s piano sonatas. “To use a clichéd phrase, the more you know about something, the more you realize how much you don’t know,’’ Lewis says. “By the end of that year, I felt like a total beginner, but it was wonderful. . . . This music carries such endless possibilities, every time you come back to it, sometimes years later, something can just click.’’

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com.

PAUL LEWIS, piano

Works by Schubert

Tonight at: Concert Hall, Mahaney Center for the Arts, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vt. Tickets: $6-$25. 802-443-6433, go.middlebury.edu/tickets


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