Paul Lewis explores the delicious wit and wild humour of Haydn’s piano sonatas, together with works by Beethoven and Brahms, in landmark recital odyssey this season and next

‘This was beautiful, intelligent playing,’ Financial Times

Perhaps no other composer has shown greater understanding of music’s power to shock, enchant and prompt tears of joy and laughter than Joseph Haydn. The wit and humour, pathos and profundity of his finest piano sonatas are set to occupy Paul Lewis this season and next as part of four compelling recital programmes. The acclaimed British pianist has recorded the first of two Haydn albums for Harmonia Mundi, adding fresh repertoire to an award-winning discography already richly stocked with the piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert. The new disc is scheduled for release in 2018, and meanwhile his 2017-18 concert diary offers audiences from London and Tokyo to New York and Melbourne the chance to explore the ingenuity and endless invention of Haydn’s keyboard works – in company with equally inventive compositions by Beethoven and Brahms.

Paul Lewis’s globetrotting round of recitals, presented in two substantial instalments from September to February and March to June, means he will become fully immersed in the Haydn sonatas that he has wanted to perform for many years. His landmark series of Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms, presented over the next two seasons, include in 2017-18 concerts within the International Piano Series at London’s Royal Festival Hall, at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, Flagey in Brussels, Tokyo’s Oji Hall and Melbourne Recital Centre.

“The more you become immersed in the works of one composer, the more variety you discover,” observes Paul Lewis. “Although these programmes are about the parallels and connections between three different composers – Haydn, Beethoven and Brahms – they really feel like a single body of work. At the end of these concerts I expect to feel, as I did when exploring the piano sonatas of Beethoven and Schubert, as if I am just getting started. The remarkable thing about these great compositions is that we’re still discovering things in them more than two centuries after they were created, still relating to things that are so human about this music. They speak to us in so many ways and can articulate feelings and states of mind that are so difficult to express in words. In a very basic sense, their beauty never fades. And perhaps it is even enhanced in a world in which everything is so fast, so loud, so extreme. The chaos that so often surrounds us today makes the need for serenity and beauty more acute than ever.”

Lewis recalls how he was drawn to Haydn not least by the composer’s passion for the comedy of the absurd. “Haydn’s music, like no other, makes us laugh as well as smile,” he notes. “Beethoven uses humour but he shocks you into laughter. But Haydn sneaks up and pokes you in the ribs! Mozart can also make us laugh, although he often appears to be there in the background, laughing at us as we wonder how he ever managed to create such extraordinary music. Haydn surprises you by being mischievous; he’s never brutal or gruff in the way that Beethoven can be. There’s the least amount of malice, the greatest amount of good humour and geniality in Haydn. His outrageous ability to surprise, shock, and poke fun at the listener still feels remarkably fresh in an age when extremes have become the norm. It’s such incredible music with such incredible invention, which is why I’m so excited to be playing and recording it.”

Haydn’s profound insights into the tragic and the sublime, and the economy of his melodic writing, also stand high on Lewis’s list of reasons to celebrate the composer. “There’s not one single note more than what is necessary in Haydn,” he comments. “The colour, the character and the meaning of every note matter so much.

You sense that throughout the piano sonatas and especially in their slow movements. The depth of what he can convey with relatively few notes is quite astonishing.” The pianist’s choice of Haydn, which embraces works composed between the mid-1770s and the mid-1790s, spans everything from the turbulent emotions of the Sonata in B minor Hob XVI/32 to the madcap world of the Sonata in C major Hob XVI/50.

Paul Lewis’s admiration for Brahms, however, was not quite as immediate as that of Haydn. Falling in love with the composer’s music was, he reflects, a long, slow process. “I’m not alone among musicians in having had ‘Brahmsphobia’. I felt with Brahms that the expression was locked in to the craft, that the craft was everything. Now that I’m in my 40s, I’ve come to love that paradox.” The composer’s fusion of romantic extremes and precise craft, with its striking contradictions of unrestrained expression and refined art, ultimately proved irresistible. “There’s a clear inner logic to his madness,” Lewis observes. “Like Haydn, he can convey so much with just one note. Think of the low held D at the opening of his First Piano Concerto, written in the wake of Schumann’s suicide attempt in the Rhine. Again we’re talking about the economy of writing here – there’s so much in the themes of each of Brahms’s late piano works, the Intermezzi, the Fantasies and the Op.118 & 119 piano pieces.”

Paul Lewis has chosen to complete the programmes with Beethoven, and will perform the composer’s three sets of Bagatelles this season and next before crowning his recital series in 2019 with the Diabelli Variations. The Bagatelles contain elements of humour and wit in some, and impassioned romanticism in others, while the Diabelli Variations consists in an entire universe of emotions and moods. “The Bagatelles cover the range from his early Op.33, which date from the last decade of Haydn’s life to the late Op.126, Beethoven’s final piano work. In terms of the series, Beethoven’s compositions provide the glue that holds each of these programmes together. They offer a link with the quirkiness and humour, the surprises and the shocks of Haydn, while some of the later Bagatelles point towards what was coming with Brahms. And with the Diabelli Variations, you’re standing on the mountain top looking in all directions, past, present and future.”

See Paul Lewis (piano)

 Thursday 21 June, 7.30pm 

Book 21 June: