Paul Lewis in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The fourteenth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features British pianist Paul Lewis. I caught up with him at his Buckinghamshire home earlier in the week.

Paul is internationally recognised as one of the leading pianists of his generation. His many awards have included the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist of the Year Award, the South Bank Show Classical Music Award, the Diapason d’or de l’annee, two successive Edison awards, the 25th Premio Internazionale Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Siena, the “Preis Der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik”, a Limelight Award in Australia, and three Gramophone awards, including Record of the Year in 2008. In 2009 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the University of Southampton. His concert performances and Harmonia Mundi recordings of the complete Beethoven Sonatas, Concertos and the Diabelli Variations have earned him unanimous acclaim from all over the world, culminating in 2010 with the honour of becoming the first pianist in the history of the BBC Proms to perform all five Beethoven Concertos in a single Proms season.

Paul is a guest at many prestigious venues and festivals including the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, Lucerne Piano Festival, La Roque d’Antheron, Rheingau, and London’s Wigmore Hall where he has appeared on more than fifty occasions. He has performed with many of the world’s leading conductors including Sir Colin Davis, Bernard Haitink, Christoph von Dohnanyi, Sir Mark Elder, Sir Charles Mackerras, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Daniel Harding, Sir Andrew Davis, Andris Nelsons, Emmanuel Krivine, and Armin Jordan.

Recent and forthcoming highlights include concerto performances with the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony, London Philharmonic, Phiharmonia, New Japan Philharmonic, NHK Symphony, Boston Symphony, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Oslo Philharmonic, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Tonhalle Orchestra, and Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Solo recitals have taken him to such major venues as London’s Royal Festival Hall, Berlin Philharmonie, Vienna Konzerthaus, Toppan Hall Tokyo, Orchestra Hall Chicago, Concertgebouw Amsterdam, KKL Luzern, Tonhalle Zurich, Festspielhaus Baden Baden, and the Auditorio Nacional Madrid.

At the beginning of 2011, Paul embarked upon a two year project to perform all the mature piano works from the last six years of Schubert’s life. This series is being presented in London, New York, Chicago, Tokyo, Melbourne, Rotterdam, Bologna, Florence, the Schubertiade Schwarzenberg, and at other major venues worldwide. Future recording plans for Harmonia Mundi include two double CDs of Schubert solo works, Mozart concertos with Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Daniel Harding, and solo works by Schumann and Mussorgsky.

Paul studied with Ryszard Bakst at Chethams School of Music and Joan Havill at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, before going on to study privately with Alfred Brendel. Along with his wife the Norwegian cellist Bjørg Lewis, he is artistic director of Midsummer Music, an annual chamber music festival held in Buckinghamshire, UK.

Here’s the transcript for those who prefer to read my interviews:

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   British concert pianist, Paul Lewis, is one of the leading pianists of his generation. He’s won many awards and accolades worldwide for his playing and recordings and he’s the first pianist in the history of the BBC Proms to have performed all five Beethoven Piano Concertos in one Proms’ season. I’m thrilled that he’s joining me today for a classical conversation. Welcome, Paul.

PAUL LEWIS: Thank you.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:   I know you’re so busy but thank you so much for joining me.

PAUL LEWIS:  No, thanks for coming. [laughs]

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I’m going to start by asking all about your musical education. What age were you when you started, what was the catalyst and, you know, did you come from a musical family?

PAUL LEWIS:  There was no music at home when I was little, really, apart from what was on the radio. My dad, at that time, was a big John Denver fan. He had some John Denver records or probably all the John Denver records but apart from that, there was really nothing musical in the house. There was a great, well-stocked record library around the corner from where we lived. I remember, I joined the record library when I was about eight and that’s where I got to know lots of music. You know, it was such an important and fundamental part of my musical upbringing really. So, I could just discover music freely and every weekend, I take out three records and tape them. I still have some of the tapes. I don’t have a cassette player but the tapes are there. That’s how I got to know music really.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  That’s amazing, isn’t it? Not to have a musical background, in a way.

PAUL LEWIS: I know a lot of musicians do have musical parents or a musical background of some sort but I’m quite grateful that I didn’t in a way because I could discover it in my own way, you know. I wasn’t sort of steered in any particular direction. Mum and dad were always very supportive but of course, they didn’t know about music so it was up to me to find it, really, but I’m quite glad that I could have the opportunity to do that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So, when did you first start playing the piano and how old were you?

PAUL LEWIS: Well, I suppose it goes back to when I was four. An aunt, a great aunt, bought me a little Bontempi organ toy sort of thing. [Melanie interjects, “I remember those (laughs)”] Yeah, think it was a very basic model. I didn’t even have a demo on it. You know, you just had to do it all yourself but…Yeah, that was when I was four and it had fifteen notes on it so an octave and a bit. I started, sort of, picking out tunes, you know, and started from there really. It didn’t seem…I remember…I do vaguely remember mum and dad’s surprise when I just started to play tunes that they recognized. I didn’t think there was anything strange about that. I remember being puzzled by their reaction more than anything else but it was a toy, you know. It was just fun so I suppose, that really is my first encounter with a keyboard.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: So which teacher then do you think was crucial in the development of your piano playing?

PAUL LEWIS: When I went to Guildhall when I was eighteen, I studied with Joan Havill for the next five years and that felt very important to me, pianistically; mainly really, just to have this very solid and intense kind of grounding with the piano because I felt I needed it at that stage. I felt that I…It’s difficult to describe. I felt a little bit disconnected physically from the keyboard. I wanted to do certain things that I wasn’t able to do. I didn’t feel particularly secure at the keyboard and I think those years with Joan really helped me a lot in that respect. She has a very good understanding of how it worked physically and how you connect yourself to the keyboard and to do it in a relatively relaxed way because, we all trying to be relaxed when we play. It’s easier said than done. Of course, we have to use our muscles. It’s not like we can just be floppy but how to manage all that is the question and she was great at that.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  How did you develop your technique over the years?

PAUL LEWIS: Well, I don’t know. I think you carry on developing it. I don’t think you ever stop.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  That’s interesting. A lot of other pianists I’ve interviewed said that even now, they’re still developing in a way.

PAUL LEWIS: Yeah. I mean, I’m forty now and…[Melanie interjects, “just a young chap!’ (laughs)”] Getting on! And, there are things, say pieces that I’m playing now that I’m coming back to after ten years, playing it when I was thirty the last time. There are things that I found more difficult then than I do now [Melanie interjects, “That’s interesting”] and it’s only up here really. There’s nothing physical that’s changed dramatically, at least, in that time so I don’t think so but it’s just the way you think of things and I think sometimes we get hung up on technique that we look for physical ways around things when in fact, we should ask ourselves the question of what is it musically that we are trying to achieve. And usually, there’s something that presents itself through that route. You hit on something that you find is actually more like the answer than if you’re kind of banging on about, like how am I going to get around this.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Yes, that’s true actually. So you studied privately with Alfred Brendel, which must have been an amazing experience. How do you think it has influenced your piano playing and your thoughts on music generally?

PAUL LEWIS: It was an amazing experience. It was very, very intense. I do remember the first time. Well, the first time I played to him was in ’93 at master class at the Guildhall I played the Haydn Sonata in E flat major, so that was already more than twenty years ago. (laughs) That’s amazing! And then after that, I would go to his home in Hampstead maybe five to six times a year play something. The first time I went there was later that year and I played Liszt’s Dante Sonata which was a piece I played at school and I’d been playing it for a while and thought I knew it. I came out of that lesson and I realized I didn’t know it at all. (laughs).

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  It’s funny. I’ve heard him play that many times and it’s a piece I used to play as well. It’s incredible, his reading of that sonata. It’s just unbelievable that I’ve got a memory of that piece. (laughs)

PAUL LEWIS: Yeah, it’s incredible how detailed it gets, in terms of sound and colour. I think when I played it to him I was perhaps thinking more along the lines of a general, pianistic way of playing which of course, is a way to do it but Liszt I think, benefits a lot from a different kind of approach. You don’t just look at it from a pianistic way (laughs) because it can sometimes fall down if you do. It became an orchestral piece after I played it to him. I mean, in my mind, it changed but the intensity of that session, that first session on it was such that I got home and I couldn’t play it. I couldn’t even play the notes. It took quite a while before I could come back to it and rework everything, looking at everything from a different point of view and actually manage to do it physically at the same time. It was quite a devastating effect, in a way.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Which composers are you particularly drawn to, you really enjoy playing?

PAUL LEWIS:  I play a lot of Germanic classical music, Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, etc. and along that line but it’s not just that. It’s really…I think the composers I’m most drawn to these days are those that are less pianistic in their writing. Liszt obviously is very pianistic but, as we just talked about, it’s not really piano music. It’s bigger than that. It’s orchestral music, I mean, Schubert, there’s such a lot of vocal music in Schubert quite obviously and I think to have music that you can try to use the piano to imitate other things, I think is great fun. It’s a great challenge and it’s just a lot more interesting than certain other types of music which really do rely on the piano sounding like a piano, in a sense. I find that sort of music…I just get not bored with because it can still be great music but it just doesn’t appeal to me in the same way really.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  I mentioned in the intro that you played all five Beethoven piano concertos in one go at the Proms. They’re all very different aren’t they? They’ve got different characters so which one do you prefer playing and why?

PAUL LEWIS: That depends on which conductor and which orchestra I’m playing with. (laughs)


PAUL LEWIS:  Yeah. Well, the fourth is for me the biggest challenge. It’s the most subtle of the five that I find.            It’s the most difficult. It’s very difficult to play in a very subtle way. It doesn’t necessarily sound as if it’s the most impressive the way that the third or fifth might sound but its difficulties are often hidden to the ear. It doesn’t lie particularly well under the fingers and there are a lot of very subtle changes of temperature, little changes of pulse and colour along the way and you have to see eye-to-eye with whoever you’re doing it with for that to work. And when it does, it feels like nothing else; a performance of the fourth that you felt was really in the zone. It’s quite something whereas on the other hand, it’s also susceptible to the opposite really. If it doesn’t work, it’s a disaster that feels terrible. In a way, the fourth, I suppose, is my favourite because it’s the most fragile and elusive of the five. (laughs)

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Your recordings of all thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas have been really critically acclaimed. How does your approach differ  in interpretation from say, the early sonatas to the last six do you think?

PAUL LEWIS: I think my approach probably doesn’t change too much because I think what you’re doing is you’re just trying to unearth what it is that Beethoven was getting at. Obviously the language, if you compare Beethoven’s early sonatas to the late, the language is very different, the musical language. The sound is different. It’s a world of difference really. but what you’re trying to do is to convey what it is you think Beethoven is telling you and in that sense, the approach is the same. It’s just that he becomes…you know, there’s the language and he becomes a lot more prescriptive in the later sonatas, a lot more detailed in his markings and I think, in that sense, you could say that the late sonatas sound, they ought to sound, as if they have a kind of freedom about them in performance. But in fact, when you look at the score, you have less freedom than you do in the early sonatas (laughs) because he’s so specific about what he wants. So that’s a big challenge, I think, with the late sonatas because they do have to sound            really unrestrained, unshackled and that’s something which I suppose requires a different approach but essentially, you’re still approaching it in the same way.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: In 2011, you embarked on a very interesting project playing and recording all of Schubert’s mature works written in the last six years of his life. This is quite an interesting project. How did it come about and why can we hear you playing them?

PAUL LEWIS: It came about because Schubert is one of those composers I can’t live without, really. I have to have Schubert around or not too far away. It’s something I wanted to do. Well in fact, ten years ago, it was like more than ten years ago now, I played all the completed piano sonatas in 2001/2002 season. It was the first time I’d ever done anything like that, any kind of series and I just thought, I had great fun with it and I wanted to come back to Schubert in a slightly more comprehensive way so all the mature piano music, the last six years of his life, was something that I really had in mind for some time. It’s now coming to the end of that time so all the venues that have taken the whole series have had the last concert but I’m just playing the last programme until this summer.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  So, you’re recording those?

PAUL LEWIS: Yeah, most of it’s done now. I think that the last CD will be out in the spring of next year. In fact, I’ve re-recorded. The very first CD I made was with Schubert, it was the C minor and the A minor D. 784 sonata an I just re-recorded those two so I think that would be coming out too because ten/eleven/ twelve years is enough time for things to change drastically. (laughs)

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Excellent. So tell us a little bit more about the festival. I think it’s called Mid- Summer music that you run here in Buckinghamshire with your wife. How did that come about?

PAUL LEWIS: Well, we just wanted to start something. We live in a place that’s not far from London so there’s no great need for putting more music when everything is within easy reach but we couldn’t resist it and there’s a wonderful little place, ten minutes away from here, a little village called Latimer, which is when you’re there, you could be in the middle of nowhere, you’re in this typical Chiltern landscape, you look out on but in fact, you’re five-minute drive away from the penultimate stop on the metropolitan line. (laughs) It’s quite accessible so it’s weekend of concerts. We put on four concerts. We get a group of nice musicians together and we just mix and match and play some concerts, play four concerts.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  That’s a great idea, isn’t it?

PAUL LEWIS: Yeah and everybody seems to enjoy it. It’s very friendly. We don’t have critics. We don’t have microphones. It’s just, hopefully, a situation where people can feel relaxed and enjoy playing music in a way that you know, we all enjoy playing it but certain situations are more pressured than others and I wanted this to be a very unpressured situation in which to play.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Sounds lovely. So which venues around the world have you most enjoyed performing in?

PAUL LEWIS: Well, lots of different venues for different reasons, really. It’s very difficult to just point to one or two because they’re all so different. There are just a handful of venues where you kind of have an allergic reaction or something doesn’t feel right about it, about the sound. It’s a personal thing because you have your own sound. You’re looking for certain things when you play, obviously. The sound of a hall, the acoustic of a hall and the sound of a particular piano within that hall is of course a very important factor in how you get to that. If those things are not right, they’re not kind of in line with what your…or not helpful…not helping you to find what you’re looking for then you can find it difficult but not necessarily a hall that everybody would dislike but it’s just something that doesn’t fit for you and then the halls that do, other places that you really enjoy going back to. In terms of, I think the big hall of The Concertgebouw is hard to beat really. The acoustic in there is just so natural and colourful and when I played a recital there last year and when you think, it’s a big hall, a big symphony orchestra-sized orchestra hall but in fact, it works so well for a two thousand-seater plus for a piano recital. I think it’s, dare I say it, it’s the only two thousand-seater that really works fantastically well for solo piano (laughs) because everywhere else is a slight compromise. You’re kind of battling with something but yeah I think The Concertgebouw is hard to beat.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  What’s your most treasured musical memory over the years?

PAUL LEWIS: There are too many. You know, it’s different looking back. When you’re looking forward to something that you’re about to do, you often look at it with certain amount of trepidation or angst or terror (laughs) and you can look back at those same events and think, well actually I had a quite good time. (laughs) I think the terror was part of the process in a way that made it possible but there are lots of, I mean, again I’d find it very difficult to put my finger on one or two things. I’ve never been so stressed in all my life leading up to the Prom’s Beethoven cycle a few years ago.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  That’s why I mentioned it because it’s such a feat, isn’t it really?

PAUL LEWIS: Well, it really got to me in the months leading up to that and I wondered what have I agreed to and what am I doing this for and then from the first rehearsal that we had which was two days before the concert, it all went and it was clear that okay, this is, that I’ve been spending the last three years worrying about is now up and running. I can just enjoy it. In a way, you lose some of that tension and I had a great time. It was great fun and then of course, there’s Mid-Summer Music, in a way it’s in the opposite end of the scale in terms of how high profile it is (laughs) but that I enjoy so much because it’s homemade. It’s our thing with Bjorg, my wife. We put this thing together and there’s something very personal about it and that is something that is very precious and I think unique.

MELANIE SPANSWICK: What exciting plans have you got coming up for the rest of the year?

PAUL LEWIS: Well, after the Schubert years, the next few years are on its bag so the next recital programme is with Mussorgsky’s Pictures at  an Exhibition, some late pieces of Liszt and Bach-Busoni Chorale Preludes and [Melanie interjects, “Quite different.”] Yeah very different and great stuff, great music but I think it’s important to try to mix it up. You’ve spent some years doing almost exclusively one thing to try to play as much diverse music as you can and there’s the Brahms D Minor Concerto which I’ve come to quite late. I played it for the first time just last month and that felt really daunting to do a piece like that for the first time. I’m thinking, am I ever gonna get this up and running and then I’m convinced it’s part the process really. It’s part of what makes it possible. All this angst that you feel when you lead up to something because those concerts I play when I’m really too relaxed on the day, they’re never my best concerts and I have to have a certain amount of tension. Anyway, I’m going off tangent here (Melanie: ‘That’s fine, no problem’). (laughs) With the Brahms, I was worried about that but it’s such a great piece to play, once it is up and running so after that I decided to commit to the B flat Concerto, the second, which I never played before. Now, that’s going to be a challenge, I know. I’m gonna be unbearable to be around with that. (laughs)

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  What does playing the piano mean to you?

PAUL LEWIS:  It’s a difficult question because primarily what we’re involved in is music. We’re having a life in music and spending our time experiencing music. Playing the piano is really a way to channel that. It’s a way to convey to other people how you feel about all this so it’s a great privilege to be able to do that. I often think about how it would feel if all of a sudden I couldn’t play the piano for some reason and I’m sure that would be a big deal, not to be able to play the piano, because I’m used to doing that but in the end, you still have music. If fundamentally, what is the most important thing is that you’re surrounded by music, you could still be involved with music and I’d like to think that that was really, of course it is the most important thing but if I were not able to play the piano, it wouldn’t be the end of the world, at least.

MELANIE SPANSWICK:  Thank you so much for joining me today, Paul.

PAUL LEWIS: Thank you.


Melanie Spanswick has written and published a wide range of courses, anthologies, examination syllabuses, and text books, including Play it again: PIANO (published by Schott Music). This best-selling graded, progressive piano course contains a large selection of repertoire featuring a huge array of styles and genres, with copious practice tips and suggestions for every piece.

For more information, please visit the publications page, here.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Great Interview Mel, really engaging and so informative. His Beethoven Piano Concerto 4 concert at the proms that year was the best performance I think i have ever seen / listened to.

  2. Thank you Tim. I enjoyed interviewing Paul so much……

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