Interview / Paul Lewis, pianist

English pianist Paul Paul Lewis, born in Liverpool, performs Mozart’s Concerto for Piano & Orchestra in C, KV 503 on The Mozart Festival, with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Robin Ticciati, conductor.

Wesley Horner:  I’ll ask you first, Paul Lewis, about the cadenza. It was written by your teacher, Alfred Brendel. How did you make the decision to use your teacher’s cadenza?

Paul Lewis: Well, there’s no cadenza by Mozart for this piece. For some concertos, generally, I give it a go myself. I’ve written cadenzas for other Mozart concertos. For this one, I didn’t come up with anything that I was happy with. I’m still trying, but because Alfred’s cadenza, it’s a wonderful cadenza, I just decided that I’d play that one. There are two versions of it, actually. I play the earlier one, the one from the ’70s. He modified it later and added the last phase.

There’s a theme in the first movement, which sounds a little bit like the French national anthem. He adds the second half of that theme in the cadenza to make the point. I feel that only he, as a master comedian in music, can bring that sort of thing off, so I play the earlier version without that.

Wesley Horner:  Mozart himself wrote this concerto, and then, the next day, premiered it in a casino. When you’re performing it, do you think of Mozart as the performer?

Paul Lewis: Sometimes, at certain points. There’s a certain way in which you feel some of the things he does, you can imagine him looking down at us, laughing. Laughing at our sort of wonder, a “How does he do that?” kind of thing.

There’s a feeling of that that I get with Mozart the performer. It’s this funny thing with Mozart, there’s often such a feeling of improvisation in the music, and yet, it’s just so inevitable. Even when it surprises you, you feel it’s the only direction it could’ve gone. There’s a sense that he’s kind of making it up. You have to convey that a little bit, I think, from time to time. On the other hand, maybe it’s best not to think too much of Mozart’s performer way when you’re performing yourself. It’s quite easy to get spooked by that, really.

Wesley Horner: Is there extra pressure with performing Mozart in Mozart’s home town?

Paul Lewis: It doesn’t bother me too much, those sorts of things. In the end, it’s the music. It’s you and the music. It doesn’t matter where you’re doing it or in what kind of circumstances. It doesn’t make it any easier to play it in the back of beyond. There’s still the same challenging music. That’s something that doesn’t worry me too much.

Of course, there is a bit of pressure involved, because it is this famous Mozart week here in Salzburg. On the other hand, it’s just wonderful to come here and play in the beautiful Mozarteum concert hall, in these wonderful surroundings, great environment. It adds a certain type of energy to it, I think. It’s nice.

Wesley Horner: You’ve made a tremendous amount of recordings. Of course, you perform a lot as a solo artist. Then, with this concerto, you’re accompanied by an orchestra with other guy guiding. How does the dynamic change for you as a performer when you’re by yourself, compared to being on stage with this conductor and all these other people?

Paul Lewis: It changes quite a lot. In many ways, it’s just easier to be by yourself. Again, it’s just you and the music. You just have that to worry about. It’s enough to worry about. With an orchestra and with a conductor, of course, the relationship comes into play. It’s so important that you, at least on some level, can see eye to eye. From time to time, that doesn’t happen.

With certain pieces, the one I think of straight away is Beethoven’s fourth concerto, where, if you don’t understand each other in that, it just doesn’t work. It’s a disaster. It’s terrible. It’s just painful. Fortunately, that’s not the case in this instance.

I love working with conductor Robin Ticciati very much. It’s a great experience. The Scottish Chamber Orchestra, I’ve worked with them for a long time. It’s a wonderful orchestra. It’s its own pleasure. It really is just pleasure to do this.

Wesley Horner: What changes for you on stage compared to rehearsal? When the moment of the performance comes and the audience is there, how is it different from when you’re at home performing for your own pleasure?

Paul Lewis: It’s all about the energy. It’s all about the sense of occasion. It’s hard to describe, but there’s very little that remains the same between practicing or rehearsing for yourself, and then doing it on display, as it were.

I guess it’s the sort of thing where, I often think that there are some things that you could practice until you’re blue in the face, you could sit down and practice for hours and hours and hours and think about and try to achieve. There are other things, which you would never achieve if you didn’t play it in public.

It’s to do with that energy that an audience gives to the whole occasion, to the performance. Even if you think of the silences. A silence when you’re just in a quiet room by yourself is completely different to a real silence with a thousand people or so all concentrating. There’s nothing that’s similar about those two types of silence. The only way you can experience that is to be in that situation.

It’s difficult to describe exactly what it is, but there’s very little that’s the same. It’s strange. In those performance situations, there are times when you really learn the important things about the music.

Wesley Horner:  When you’re performing, how do you know “this is good”?

Paul Lewis: You don’t. I just contradicted everything I said. This is another question now, because you have an impression of something as the performer which may or may not be the same as the people who are listening.

You’re the only one, as the performer, who knows what you’re trying to do. No one else knows that. No one’s inside your head. You’re comparing everything to what you’re trying to achieve. What you’re hearing, you’re putting that next to what you’re trying to imagine. Everybody else is just hearing what’s coming out.

It’s a completely different perspective. I think for musicians, it’s a challenge to try and let go of that and just allow it to be what it is. People will hear what they hear and enjoy it or not on whatever level. You just have to accept that. It’s a difficult thing to accept when you really work at something and you want it to be a certain way and you want to achieve certain things, but one just has to accept it.

Wesley Horner: Be in the moment.

Paul Lewis: Yes, that’s right.

Wesley Horner:  There is always someone in the audience for whom listening to this piece as a brand new experience. As a teacher, what would you tell that person about the Mozart piano concertos in general? Or their original context, compared to how we hear them now.

Paul Lewis:  Maybe there’s a preconception about music being a museum piece, this type of music. It’s so clearly not, especially this sort of music, which is so alive with surprises. I think it’s such a rich experience in so many ways. I think one just has to be completely open to the idea, and to let go of any preconceptions. That would be the way to approach this, as with any music, really.

Wesley Horner: Is Mozart more difficult than, say, all of your work with Beethoven or Schubert, because his writing is so transparent, it’s awfully exposed out there?

Paul Lewis: In that sense, it is more difficult. Every single note is exposed. Every single note matters and has its color and its character. One could say that with Beethoven and with Schubert and with lots of other things, but with Mozart, it has a particular kind of transparency. It has to be fluid and logical and inevitable in a certain way. That is a challenge. You can feel completely naked on stage, even with an orchestra behind you.

Wesley Horner:  You’re a courageous person. If someone knocked on the door here at the room and you stood up and opened the door and it was Mozart, and he said, “Hi, Paul. I’m really busy. I have 10 minutes. Do you have any questions for me?”

Paul Lewis: I’d run away.

Wesley Horner: What mystery could he solve for you?

Paul Lewis: Goodness me. If I had my nerdy hat on, I would want him to solve these textual questions that you have, certain problems with what he’s written. Did he write that, did he write something else?

I don’t know. I’m not sure I’d ask him anything in particular. I’d want to spend 10 minutes with him to see what kind of character he is and what came out. What could I ask Mozart? It’s like the music itself. When you play this great music, the main thing is not to get in the way of it. You just let it be what it is, because there’s nothing you can do to make it greater than it is. It’s great music. There’s a lot you can do to make it worse.

In that sense, there’s a point at which you have to stand back and just allow it to be what it is. That’s how I’d do it if Mozart walked in the room. I wouldn’t want to ask him particular questions. I’d just want to look and see who is this person? What’s he like? What comes out?

Wesley Horner: Have a drink with him.

Paul Lewis: Yeah. Let’s play pool. It’s a great icebreaker.