Saturday, May 8, 2010

REVIEW: Paul Lewis Plays Beethoven with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra

I went in with the concerto and came out with the symphony.

Last night’s (7th of May) performance entitled, Paul Lewis Plays Beethoven, played to a full house at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre Concert Hall. In fact, because of my late ticket change, I had to give up my usual seat and sit in the choir stall. Luckily, I was given a seat on the stage right, thus providing me with a great view of the pianist’s hand. For this I have to thank the HKPO’s wonderful staff in trying their best to accommodate my request. Part of a Beethoven Trilogy, this first installment comprised of Leonore: Overture No. 3, Op. 72a, Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat (Emperor), Op. 73; and Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67.

The Leonore: Overture No. 3, Op. 72 opened the concert. It was played well, but it didn’t sound fresh and I am afraid that this sentiment continued onto the Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat (Emperor), Op. 73. This may be due to where I was sitting or I could have ruined it for myself by listening to several Emperor recordings prior to the concert.

I tried very hard to love the performance, but I came away unmoved. My expectation was high and why not? Every one of Paul’s Beethoven Piano Sonatas CD series (four in all) was included in Gramophone magazine's "Editor's Choice". In 2008, the volume 4 of the series was awarded Gramophone's "Best Instrumental" recording and "Best Recording of the Year". That is no small feat! While I am familiar with the name Paul Lewis, my first encounter of his performance came when I bought his and Mark Padmore’s critically acclaimed Schubert’s Winterreise. The partnership was very good and I have to say that it ranks within the top three of my twenty-something recordings of this cycle.

There is no denying that Paul is an outstanding musician with exceptional technique; and one great example was the cadenza in the first movement. The cadenza was executed in exquisite tone and formidable elegance. Another great moment was the partnership of Paul and the HKPO at the start of the 3rd movement. It was focused and exciting while Paul tackled all the tricky scale passages with graceful buoyant touch. However, overall, I came away impressed but not excited. The interpretation was standard and safe.

The Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67, on the other hand, was absolutely fantastic! From the start till the end, the playing was rich and lustrous, exploring and capturing the innate brilliance of the score. The reading, more than splendidly articulated, was also discriminatingly dynamic. Edo de Waart was able to provoke tension in elegance and warmth in intensity. For such a popular and well-known symphony, there are always a lot of preconceptions and expectations to compete against and/or live up to. In this case, expectations were both met and exceeded.

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