Paul Lewis is nothing if not a completist.
The celebrated British pianist, who performs with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra Thursday-Saturday (April 17-19) at Benaroya Hall, has a penchant for playing entire cycles and categories of a composer’s work.
In 2010, Lewis became the first pianist to perform all five of Beethoven’s piano concertos in one season at London’s BBC Proms. His award-winning discography includes all 32 of Beethoven’s piano sonatas (which he performed in their entirety on tour between 2005 and 2007) and concertos, as well as Liszt’s late works. In May, Lewis’ series of recordings covering Schubert’s major piano works — from the last six years of the composer’s life — will be released.
Lewis has been hailed as “a foremost interpreter of Central European classical music.” While that’s obviously a hefty piece of classical repertoire for the piano, Lewis has his reasons for returning musically to that part of the world again and again.
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“There’s something instinctive about coming back to that music, and you want to spend time with it,” says Lewis. “But I’m also drawn by its challenges. The music is constantly fascinating and the job is never done. It’s not the type of music you master. There’s no arrival.
“It’s always another point on the journey.”
Lewis will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor at Benaroya. Guest conductor Stéphane Denève, conductor of the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, will lead the orchestra in a program that also includes Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E minor and the U.S. premiere of James MacMillan’s “The Death of Oscar.”
“The third concerto has that real, authentic Beethovenian stamp of character,” Lewis says. “As is the case with Beethoven’s other middle-period works, especially in the minor keys, he struggles and asks all kinds of questions, but always finds an answer. Everything is resolved in the end, triumphantly. It’s a pivotal work in the concerto cycle.”
Watching videos of Lewis in performance is bearing witness to a man who cannot wait to get his hands on a piano’s keys.
A Liverpool native, Lewis, 41, came “from a family where there was no music in the house. I had to go and find it. There was a record library, well-stocked, where I would go every week and check out records and listen to a huge range of things. I did want to study piano, but there was no piano teacher at school. So I started on cello, and was absolutely terrible. I had no talent for it whatsoever.”
Lewis began taking “serious” piano lessons at age 12. At 14, he was accepted by Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, and later at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He took second prize at the 1994 World Piano Competition, and in more recent years has won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Instrumentalist of the Year, the South Bank Show Classical Music Award and three Gramophone Awards.
“When I was taking cello lessons, I used to break into the school assembly hall and try to play piano by ear,” says Lewis. “I was determined. I don’t know what triggered it or why I was drawn to piano. I just wanted it.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org