Paul Lewis, universally acknowledged to be among the world’s greatest pianists, was 20 years old and preparing for a London master class in January, 1993 when he looked into the audience and murmured, “Oh, God, it’s Brendel!”
Alfred Brendel, then 61, is one of the greatest Beethoven interpreters of our time. Lewis had grown up listening to Brendel’s LPs, and now had to perform for the legendary pianist.
Brendel liked what he heard, because for the next 9 years, Lewis studied Beethoven and piano in general with his idol. Lewis took some time from his preparations for his appearance this weekend with the Boston Symphony Orchestra to talk about how one great pianist transmitted the experience of playing Beethoven to the next.
Michael: What was it like to study with Brendel?
Paul: I remember the first few times I played for him, getting back home and then trying to play through, practice what we worked at. It was all too much information. I learned that I had to put that piece away for a while and come back later when the dust settled. The effect of playing for him was really huge.
Michael: Are you still in touch?
Paul: Yes. I saw him quite recently. He came to a little festival that I run with my wife, and give one of his lectures, which was really nice. Fantastic. Even played a bit, which after not playing concerts for so long it’s amazing. He puts his hands on the keys and straight-away you can hear it’s Brendel. It’s that sound, it’s still there.
Michael: How did he communicate his ideas about Beethoven to you?
Paul: It’s really difficult to put it in words, because there are so many details. It’s the example of someone who’s a musician first and pianist second. He just happened to be one of the world’s greatest pianists, but that wasn’t the point.
He was a musician and everything is at the service of the music. He was going through an incredible amount of detail with me, but it was never about anything else. It was never about you. It was never personal. You could have a tough time with it, but it was always focused on the music and what he was doing.
I remember playing what I’m playing this week in Boston, Beethoven’s fourth concerto. We spent a lot of time just on the opening line, as you would imagine, just balancing the chords, getting the line right, getting the character exactly the right sound, the right kind of sonority, the right orchestration.
Michael: What was his relationship to the piano?
Paul: For him the piano was never just a piano. It’s a means to reach other things. It’s an orchestra. It’s a voice. It’s so many things. That was one of the big things that he would talk about, really, how to transcend the piano. How to go beyond what is a piano sound.
You don’t want to hear a piano down in the lower tenor, you want to hear a bassoon. He would show me how to get that sound. When he’d demonstrate, I’d be sitting next to him on the piano to the side and could see how he was producing those sounds with a combination of articulation and certain kinds of pedaling. He puts everything in words so clearly, but these sorts of things you have to just observe and listen, and translate it into your own way of doing things.
His teaching was opening up a sense of what’s possible. So it was just incredibly inspiring, the whole way through, all those years.
Michael: When you went to see him, how much time would you spend with him?
Paul: It could be anything from a couple of hours to five hours, really. It just depends on how much he went into something. The first time I went to his house, it was five hours on the Liszt Dante Sonata. The piece takes fifteen minutes to play, but we spent five hours. It had a massive impact on me. But he wouldn’t look at the clock, that’s for sure.
Michael: After that first five hour session, did you come out of there just absolutely exhausted, or were you walking on air, or both?
Paul: Oh, exhausted, devastated, elated, inspired, you know, everything. You can’t put your finger on it, really — it was everything. There would be so many things that I couldn’t just then go to the piano and think about what he’d said. It was just too much. So I would have to put it to one side and come back to it some weeks later, and then it would start to fall into place, so I learned that that was the way to do it.
Michael: Did he ever get frustrated with you that something wasn’t coming quickly enough, or was he a patient teacher?
Paul: He was, of course, very demanding because he demands so much of himself, and that was what came through in the way he taught. I realized quite early on that if you wanted you had to understand what he was talking about relatively quickly. If you didn’t, if you took too long to latch onto what he was saying, you would dig yourself a hole that would be impossible to get out of and you’d just end up going into so much excruciating detail that you just get stuck.
Michael: He grasped that you were capable of not just understanding what he was saying but actually doing it.
Paul: I don’t know how he came to that conclusion, but yes, he was very generous with his time, all those years.
Pianist Paul Lewis with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Symphony Hall, Boston, September 28-30. For tickets, www.BSO.org.