Paul Lewis is famous for his Beethoven, and Seattle Symphony listeners found out exactly why in Thursday’s program. The British-born pianist, who made his U.S. concerto debut with this orchestra back in 2002, delivered a revelatory performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3 with guest maestro Stéphane Denève on the podium.
Poetry, clarity, virtuosity and intelligence were there in abundance, in a reading that was remarkable for the variety of touch and dynamics. Lewis charged into the first-movement cadenza with flamboyance and grandeur, then opened the second movement with a pianissimo so delicate that the audience was practically leaning forward in the seats to hear the soft-focus phrases. Lewis’ playing has exceptional evenness and clarity; it’s evident that he has a great affinity for Beethoven.
Denève gave the soloist admirable support from the podium, never overpowering Lewis even in the most dulcet moments, and rising to the exciting assertive passages. It was a great evening for the French-born conductor, who opened the program with some spoken program notes explaining the genesis of the first work: the U.S. premiere of Scottish composer James MacMillan’s dramatic and effective “The Death of Oscar.”
Denève’s introduction of the 10-minute piece, which is based on Celtic legend, included his observation that the lengthy English horn solo was “brilliantly” played by the orchestra’s Stefan Farkas, which proved to be the case. The music, jointly commissioned by the Seattle Symphony and two other orchestras, sounds like the soundtrack to a historical epic; it’s highly pictorial. The performance got a very warm response from the audience — which brought the conductor back to the stage in a wave of enthusiasm not always seen during premieres of new commissions.
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The program’s finale, Rachmaninoff’s tuneful Symphony No. 2, was given the full romantic treatment, with the lush melodies warmly spun out, and the more declarative passages practically exploding from the stage. Denève urged the orchestra on with swooping, commanding gestures of baton, hand, and even his hair (a wild mop of curls that seemed to take on an interpretive life of their own). The orchestra members, reconfigured for these concerts with split first and second violin sections, watched Denève as if they weren’t entirely sure what he’d do next, which was quite possibly the case.
It’s a program well worth hearing in the two repeats: a fully engaged orchestra, a supercharged maestro, and a soloist who really makes Beethoven roll over.
Melinda Bargreen also reviews concerts for 98.1 Classical KING FM. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.