Pianist Paul Lewis about rules in playing canonic repertoire and tips for young musicians “Music about communication and having connections with people. And you can only do this if you are crazy, being in love with it. There is no other way”

On 10th March a leading British pianist Paul Lewis came to Kharkiv (Ukraine) to play the recital at Kharkiv Music Fest. It was the last Paul’s recital before the end of quarantine in Britain, and the last concert before the beginning of the next quarantine in Ukraine. An audience could enjoy Mozart, Mendelssohn, Musorgsky and Scriabin music played by a well-known classic repertoire performer who has two Gramophone Awards for the recording of all 32 Beethoven sonatas. Before the recital The Claquers had talked with Paul Lewis about rights and rules in playing iconical music works, the hardest parts in preparing and performing his repertoire and opportunities to become a professional musician in the United Kingdom.

We will start with a few short questions. Morning, midday, evening, or night? And why?

Midnight because it is probably when I am most awake, and when I am most receptive to things.

Melon or watermelon?


Cats or dogs? 

Dogs for sure. I have a dog, he is called Coda, and he is a cockapoo. He is “very” musical — he runs out if anybody plays (laughing).

Marvel or DC? Do you watch these films?

No. But my son watches, and he would certainly say “Marvel”. 

Your favorite film director?

That is a difficult one. I have enjoyed Buz Luhrmann a lot.

Thу book you suggest to read, or the last one you have read?

One book I have read recently which I was very taken with is called “S.U.M.” by David Eagleman. He is a neuroscientist but he wrote this book about the afterlife from a completely non-religious, scientific point of view. It is 40 very short stories about the afterlife, each of them from a different scientific angle, and it is really fascinating.

Do you listen to music besides classical?

I listen to some jazz, some world music. My dad was listening to John Denver, so I know a lot of his music. But the country is in my past maybe. Sometimes I listen to music that was around when I was growing up, like 1980th pop music. It is nostalgic. 

You started studying music as a…

I started learning a cello when I was young.

But you switched to the piano because…

Because I was terrible at the cello (laughing).

Your priorities in choosing repertoire?

At first, you have completely love what you play. Otherwise, you will never convince anybody of what you want to do. Also, my priorities are in playing that repertoire that challenges all the time, that you come back to, and after some time you see something new. This kind of repertoire always gives you a fresh challenge, each time. And as for the piano, of course, there is so much play repertoire you never run out of these challenges. That is what is so fascinating about being a pianist.

Maybe time period and style?

I play a lot of Germanic classic music from the early 19th century. I like to play all sorts of repertoire but most of my focus is being on this.

And that will be the first long question. You play a kind of iconic, canonic, I would even say museum repertoire. So, do you believe in interpretation or you play music? Or there are some rules on how to play Mozart, Mendelssohn, and so on? 

Every performer that works on stage and performs to an audience interprets. That is how it is because you are a person, you have views and experiences. Еverything comes into the music. It is inevitable. But I don’t think as performers we should impose our personality on the music. We shouldn’t decide what the composer wanted to say. It is our responsibility to do everything we can to understand what the message was, what the composer wanted to convey, and to try (if we can) not to get away from it. We don’t think of ourselves when we play because we are there anyway, we cannot completely take ourselves out. But we shouldn’t put more of ourselves in than the composer. The composer needs to be present.

It is a very thin line between.

Yes. When you go to a concert you get a good sense, if somebody wants to show themselves. This is obvious. Whereas we just want to show the music.

Are there any rights and rules to play Mozart, for example? Like this is right playing and that is not?

There are rules and conventions from the time it was written. I play Mozart and everything on the piano and don’t play the fortepiano. So I think in that sense we transcribe it for our modern time even just on the instrument we play. But we should also respect the conventions of our time. We shouldn’t read rules like we read a newspaper or magazine, music needs to be alive and spontaneous. So we should never feel that it is just something completely premeditated according to a set of rules. But yes, there are certain things we have to understand about Mozart, for instance, in terms of scale and sound and balance.

But not using the fortepiano?

I have learned early instruments, and I think it is important because it tells you something about what the composer heard. Sometimes when you play these works on the fortepiano you certainly understand why they wrote what they wrote. This is clear. But I don’t feel confident to play the fortepiano in concerts, so I try to bring what I have learned from that into the modern piano.

It is known that in the past, people were listening to contemporary music only. But it seems that history tripped over the Beethoven. What can you say about it?

It is important to listen to contemporary music. But whatever we listen to, if it creates an emotional response it is the most important thing. We can listen to music that was written 300 years ago and it creates an emotional response because it is great music. Music is a language that sometimes puts things more clearly than you can find in words. For me, this is the thing that makes music great. It is always over its time. Great music is always relevant and we can always listen to music from any time at all and feel a connection with it.

Maybe you have a hypothesis why it started from Beethoven’s time?

Beethoven was a unique musical personality. The composer’s personality always comes through the music but Beethoven came through music with a certain kind of force and energy that is different. And I think people were very taken by this. This is why you said after Beethoven died his music continued to be played and reviewed. If you go a few years later, maybe towards Lizst, then the idea of the touring performer became a thing in a way that it was not so much before. So there was also the opportunity to play music of the past and in a wider area, wider context. Perhaps this was also part of it too. 

Are you interested in contemporary classical music?

Yes. I don’t play a lot but I play some. And sometimes I play premiers of composers who are friends of mine. I played a couple of years ago a premiere by Tomas Larcher, and maybe I will play another one next year. Again it is important that you love music. I guess if the composer is a good friend you feel a connection with him, know how he thinks, how he feels, his values. In a way, it is easier to connect with the music because you know where it comes from.

In one of your interviews, you said that you had learned everything in your 20s, and that stays in your till now. What have you been learning since that time?

Probably I meant that I have learned a lot of repertoire in my 20s. And I think that repertoire that you learn at that time stays in your mind in a certain way. What you learn later is harder to learn (laugh). It takes longer. I have spent a lot of time learning Beethoven sonatas, Schubert sonatas. But in the last year, for instance, with the lockdown and no concerts, I learned Ravel Piano Concerto, the Copland Piano Concerto, and all sorts of things that I maybe don’t play so much. Next year I have Debussy in my recital program. Last year actually was the opportunity to learn a wider range of things.

What can you say about your strength and weakness in preparing a program? What is the hardest part?

The hardest part is actually when you play a program for the first time, when you are performing. That when you really start learning something about it. You can practice and practice, but when you are on stage and there are people there… Then you start to learn something that you could never learn in a practice room. This is why we need performances with the audience. The energy of a concentration of an audience, the energy of silence — it is so important for music, and you cannot recreate this in a practice room or on a video stream. You need this experience. Of course, we have been missing so much of this in the last year. 

Live streams don’t give you any feedback. Have you had this practice?

We are happy to do something: film things, making a recording, it is OK. But the worst is the live streams for an empty hall. Because you think: “What is the point? I don’t understand why we even do that”. When it is the live stream it makes no difference to the person at home watching it on the screen because they can watch something on YouTube or whatever. That is how they receive, that is how they listen. On the other hand, for the performer, you have the stress of being live transmission but you don’t have understanding that it is a performance. And to me, this is pointless, this is not a way to enjoy, experience music. We either make films, make recordings and prepare some things or we do it live with people. 

To the difficulties before and on stage. Have you ever forgotten the text at the concert and how did you get out of this situation?

For some years, not for concertos but for cycles, I put an iPad on the piano but not for the memory of the notes — for the markings. We can remember the notes, that is normal, but not each detail and a mark in the score (each where does that crescendo start, where does it go to, and so on). We cannot remember exactly these all the time. So, to be close to that feels, to the composer, that feels good. My friend Lars Vogt said: “Look, you really should start doing this” because he has been doing it for years. And more and more people are doing this for cycles just having the iPad. I think it is useful. But I don’t use the iPad for concertos because it is different. If the composer writes pianissimo and the wood wings are playing like trying to blast you at the front of the stage you have to react (laughing). So it is no use.

Do you improvise on the stage and do you do any composer work like improvising works or music res facta?

I used to compose when I was a teenager. At school, I did compose a bit and had composition lessons but I am not a composer. Since then I have written cadenzas for Mozart and Beethoven Piano concertos, I enjoyed doing that.

Do you rewrite cadenzas?

Sort of, yeah. I revise them, they are changed a little bit from one performance to the next.

It is known that you are from a non-musician family. Was it hard to break into the music world for you personally?

When I was growing up there were greats of the local music scene. There was a local library with lots of records I used to take out. Even though I was terrible at the cello I used to play the youth orchestra, and it was brilliant. Sadly, that is all stopped now. We cannot go to the library and just browse. Of course, everything is online, you can find whatever you want online in three seconds but it is different. There is no magic, it is all distant. You are going to the library and feeling the records, looking at the photos — all this was a good experience. And it is a human experience. It is fantastic what is available digitally but it does have this distance and that is a shame. In terms of music in Britain and the UK, it is a constant conversation because we all think there is no enough and there is not enough in schools for children. Now all orchestras have an educational program which is great. Although, still music tends to be an afterthought in school subjects.

Did you start learning music at some special music school or normal?

I went to normal school until I was 14. When I was 14 I went to the music school in Manchester which was great fun. But only when I was 14.

Is there a big competition between gifted children? How can a child start his or her music career if he or she is from a small city, for instance?

Everybody feels that they probably have to move to London in the UK to be close to where everything is happening. I don’t think it is necessary really. It is important to be patient with this, take your time, and not to try to race, to get everything as soon as possible. There are always gifted children around, and probably not enough places in the profession further. That is a problem, and especially now, in the pandemic. We have always had students at music college wanting to be professionals. And for the next few years, there will be much smaller opportunities.

Can money or connections help with your career there?

I think there are some people who buy themselves into the profession but we don’t talk about those. You just have to be true to your beliefs, your passions and the music that you have an affinity with. If you are honest about this, that would help you sustain a life in music. It is not a business, it is something different. And I think we can see those who approach it as a business, that is different. But this is not what music is about. Music about communication and having connections with people. And you can only do this if you are crazy, being in love with it. There is no other way.

Today you play Mozart, Mendelssohn, Musorgsky, Scriabin. Can you describe these composers as “Mozart is …”?

Mendelssohn has lyrical and beautiful music but there is kindness in Mendelssohn’s music. He is so kind, and I think it comes through in his music. Mozart is a superhuman, he achieves an impossible with his music. For instance, Schubert is an incredible human composer with all faults and inadequacies. But there is a perfection about Mozart which rises beyond that. Scriabin is an incredible intoxicating kind… It is like a drug. I was crazy about Scriabin at school. I did not do drugs at school but I did Scriabin (laughing). And Musorgsky for me is one time a very typical Russian composer and very non-typical Russian because he has this darkness. He lived sort of dark, had a terrible life as well. And yet, what he wrote is so honest, there is no kind of show. It is not about “look how this pianist can play the piano”. Even if it is virtuosic, that is not a point. It is so deeply honest and dark in a very profound way. This is what is fascinating about his music.

And the last question. What is your dream if there is no pandemic?

What would be a dream if we all in the world could respect each other and understand that what some people see is different. It has to be celebrated, enjoyed, loved and we have not to be afraid of it. This is a big problem that we face people of different races, nationalities, beliefs and so on. It seems to be a lot of people in the world for whom those differences are a problem. And I wish they will not. That would be my dream that we can actually celebrate all the different things that make us unique.

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