An Interview with Paul Lewis

By · Title Image Tim Jokl (CC BY-NC 2.0) · Date 4/2/2019

Whatever your image of the standard background and biography for a world class concert pianist, Paul Lewis ain’t it. Born in Liverpool, the son of a dock worker and a local council employee, there were no other musicians in his family. Lewis’s childhood memories of the music played in the house revolved around records by John Denver and the Beatles. He didn’t even start piano lessons until he was 12. Now aged 46, Lewis is renowned as one of Britain’s finest players. With over a dozen recordings to his name for Hyperion and Harmonia Mundi, he was named Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist of the Year in 2003, won the Accademia Musicale Chigiana prize in 2006, became the first pianist to play all five Beethoven concertos in a single Proms season in 2010, and was knighted in the Queen’s 2016 Birthday Honours. His career has been marked by a series of star turns with orchestras from the Leipzig Gewandhaus to the NHK Symphony to the New York Philharmonic. On May 9, he’ll make his Berlin Philharmonic debut. His playing is frequently remarked on for its intensity, refinement, and sense of authority. Not bad for a working class kid who only stumbled upon classical music records by chance in the local public library.But the tragedy of Paul Lewis’s story is that it remains so remarkable. Evidence recently presented to the U.K. parliament by Kings College lecturer (and VAN contributor) Christine Scharff shows that students from private schools are still over-represented in the country’s top conservatories, while intake from the most deprived neighborhoods is less than half of the average figure for the higher education sector as a whole. With recent cuts to music education in the U.K. stripping funding for the country’s state schools even further, this situation is only likely to get worse.

Paul Lewis • Photo © Kaupo Kikkas
Paul Lewis • Photo © Kaupo Kikkas

VAN: What are your very earliest memories of music that come to mind now?

Paul Lewis: When I was four. It was Christmas, and one of my presents was a little toy organ with an octave and a bit on it. And I remember just picking out tunes that I knew. But in terms of doing it myself, it wasn’t until later that I started to have piano lessons, when I was 12.

I had cello lessons before. I started the cello when I was eight. Some of my strongest musical memories are from playing the cello. I was terrible at it. I was a dreadful cellist. But to play in the local youth orchestra and to go on orchestral courses in the summer, to be in the middle of an orchestra—it was an incredible feeling.

I was 10 at the time, probably, and I remember going on a course and we played Brahms’s Second Symphony. God knows what it sounded like. It must have been awful. But to this day, I can only hear that symphony from the bottom up, from the cello line.

I remember the radio and the music of the time: this was in the ‘70s. In Liverpool, inevitably, there was a lot of Beatles around. My dad was a big John Denver fan. Had all his music. There was also the library, round the corner from where we lived. It was well-stocked with LPs. I got to know music there.

I guess considering your background you must have quite strong opinions about the cuts to school music education—and library funding—over the past few years.

Yes. Very much. I went to Chetham’s [School of Music in Manchester] when I was 14. But before that it was the local schools. And there were peripatetic teachers. Music featured quite strongly in the curriculum at that time. The teachers were very accommodating. I gathered groups of kids together who also played instruments and we put on impromptu concerts in PE lessons. They would give over a bit of the PE lesson to that! There was a lot of accommodation to that I think because it was part of what you did at school—there was an acceptance of that.

These days it is different. You can learn an instrument at school, but you invariably have to pay for it. The library cuts too! It was amazing to be able to just walk round the corner and flick through rows and rows of LPs and hold up these LP covers and wonder, What’s inside here? Of course everything is online now. But you have to know what you’re looking for, because it’s invisible until you hear it. To go to a library and just browse, to have these things in your hands, it was a very different experience. That was how I discovered it. I didn’t go there to look for it. It was just there. And that’s the difference and that’s why I do feel very strongly about the cuts.

Imagine you’ve just been appointed some sort of music czar, in charge of all music education in the U.K. Apart from simply putting more money into it, what would you do?

I would try to start up a scheme with professional musicians in the country, because I do think it’s our responsibility to go into schools and to play. I think when you do that, you’re giving the kids an incredibly special experience. It’s not like listening to music online or from a CD. When someone plays in front of you it’s a whole different ballgame. There’s a level of experience there that you don’t get if you’re listening blind.

Obviously there would have to be funding because I would want to put string instruments into schools and that sort of thing. But I think the main thing is to engage with professionals, with people who are out there doing it, to take more responsibility, to go into schools and to show kids what it’s all about it, to give them that experience, and to get your hands dirty with it.

One teacher who had a big influence on you when you got a bit older was Alfred Brendel, who you studied with after graduating from the Guildhall School of Music in London. What was his influence on your playing and your approach to music?

He is a wonderful example of someone who is a musician first. The fact that he plays the piano is really secondary to that. To have that as an example—someone who puts music first, above all, and what he does is entirely serving that—it was a great inspiration. And to see, also, pianistically, what he does, because his sound was always individual. It was unique. You’d hear a recording and you’d know within two seconds that it was Brendel. And to see how he orchestrated that, how he got different sounds and different colors out of the piano, it was fascinating and incredibly instructive, really.

That’s one of the things I’ve taken: to always question what is the composer trying to get at in terms of color, apart from other things, because the piano is a fantastic instrument for creating illusions. I think the piano is at its least interesting when it sounds like a piano. In fact, the piano can sound like a hundred different things and I think that’s what’s so fascinating about the instrument. And that’s what Alfred always did. He never treated sitting down at the piano as just that. It was never that. To me, when I was 20, that opened a lot of doors. It opened possibilities in my mind about how you can approach the instrument.

You’re playing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No.27 in Berlin on May 9. It’s a piece you’ve played several times before. How do you think about the work?

It’s quite unusual in many ways, compared to most of the other Mozart concertos. There’s something almost Schubertian about it. There’s a nostalgia about it, there’s some longing about it, that you don’t really detect in the other concertos so much. There’s also a sense of acceptance—I try to avoid saying it’s valedictory, because I know a lot of people say that just because it’s his last piece and I don’t think there was particularly an awareness that it was his last piece when he wrote it. But it does have a sense of something different. Very subtle qualities that are not always so apparent in the other concertos.

Does the piece contain any particular traps that you look out for when playing it?

Every piece has traps! There’s no getting away from that. With this piece, tempo is key—especially in the last movement. I think sometimes the last movement is played a bit faster than it should really go. With this lilting theme, if it goes too fast, it can almost sound banal and I think it has to have that slightly nostalgic feeling about it.

It’s your debut with the Berlin Philharmonic. But Bernard Haitink you’ve played with several times before. How would you describe your relationship with him, onstage?

He’s a fantastic example of a musician who stands back, who doesn’t get in the way of what any of us are trying to do. He’s not interventionist. He doesn’t impose his will on an orchestra. He makes it possible for the players to play the best they can, in their own way. That’s a wonderful thing. He’s almost like the zen master of conducting. He enables everything.

Have you ever considered taking up the baton and conducting yourself?

I’d be far too self-conscious for that! The nearest I get to it is play-directing concertos, which next year I’m doing quite a bit of, with the Beethoven year. There are a few play-directed cycles. But, I don’t know. I’d feel a complete fraud standing up there, waving my arms around. I wouldn’t know what to do or what to say.

There’s a lot of orchestral music that I’d love to have under my hands. Imagine Brahms’s symphonies right there under your hands! But I have to say, conducting, I think, is the easiest job within the music profession to do badly and the hardest to do well. I wouldn’t want to stand up there and do it badly! I really wouldn’t. ¶