Sunday, April 28th, 2019

Paul Lewis, piano

Ilumina Festival Chamber Group

J.S. Bach– Brandeburg Concerto no.6

In B flat major, BWV 1051

Maurice Ravel

2ndmovement of String Quartet in F major

Assez vif; très rythmé

Bela Bartók

4th movement of String Quartet no. 4, Sz 91

Allegretto pizzicato

Luigi Boccherini

La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid,

No. 6 op. 30

W.A. Mozart

Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major, K.595




A couple of weeks ago, I was nonchalantly flipping the pages of the April program of Sala Cecília Meireles, which, with the Theatro Municipal, is one of the two venues for classical music in Rio de Janeiro. (There is a third, the Cidade das Artes, City of the Arts, which doesn’t count because it is very far from the civilized part of the city. I can’t imagine why they chose to build it in this insufferable Miami Beach-like neighborhood, inhabited mostly by people who don’t give a hoot about any form of art). I was about to toss the booklet in my wastepaper basket, when the announcement of a concert caught my eye. Ilumina, no idea who that is, with Paul Lewis. Paul Lewis? I was suddenly shaken out of my indifference. Paul Lewis? One of my favorite pianists, maybe even my favorite pianist, in Rio? This must be another Paul Lewis. No mistake though, the resumé on the page definitely matched that of Paul Lewis, the magnificent British musician. I hastened to my computer to make sure I could find tickets. To my surprise I did so without difficulty. So I could relax and revel in this exciting perspective.

There are, on this site, two previous reviews of concerts I attended featuring Paul Lewis. The first one was at a rather unusual music festival in Mecklemburg-Vorpommern, aka West Pomerania. I will not repeat my comments about little dogs and big horses. The other was at the Y in New York, better known for its excellent concerts. Now, I was going to hear Paul Lewis again in rather surprising circumstances: at the Sala Cecilia Meireles in Rio, with an unkown orchestra.

As I always prefer to know what I’m in for, I turned to Google and Wikipedia to find out something about this Ilumina orchestra. It turns out that it’s a wonderful project directed by violist Jennifer Stumm, whose musical acquaintance I was delighted to make.

When she came on stage along with a group of musicians, she spoke to explain what this project is all about. It is a program to help gifted young musicians who would otherwise not have much opportunity to show their talent, by giving them a chance to appear in public. Ilumina has a yearly festival in diverse places in Brazil, with different young artists every year (and some who take part year after year.) If I were to tell you all about this wonderful project, I would only be repeating what you can read in their website: – go there, you will not be sorry.

After her short but illuminating explanation – I’m sorry, but this pun was just irresistible – Jennifer Stumm led the group on stage in the 6thBrandenburg Concerto, yes, the one without violins. The lively performance was quite good, to my surprise, as I still didn’t know what to expect from Ilumina. My mistake, I’m sorry to say. I forgot to mention that the program was divided into thematic parts: Improvisations in B flat major, illustrated by the Bach concerto. There followed a part called Three Forms of Pizzicato, featuring three pieces showcasing the plucked string technique, the second movement from Ravel’s string quartet, the fourth movement of Bartók’s 4thquartet, and Boccherini’s delightful Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid, in an arrangement for chamber orchestra of the string quintet in C major with guitar. All very aptly and enjoyably performed.

Here I must mention one of the most gratifying discoveries of the evening, violinist Alexi Kenney (I think it’s him, as the program, unfortunately, failed to give us the artists’ names) whose playing is magnificently refined and polished. One of the most difficult things to do on any instrument is to deliver audible pianissimi. The ability to achieve this never fails to amaze me. In Kenney’s case, the full dynamic range is admirable, but that aspect was particularly impressive.

After the intermission, I sat on the edge of my seat, poised to give Paul Lewis’s performance of the last Mozart concerto my full attention. I was not disappointed and held my breath as the pianist’s impeccable and sensitive interpretation unfolded. I had heard him in Beethoven and in Schubert, in which he excels. Mozart is always a stumbling block for even the greatest musicians. The deceptive simplicity of the music often leads to slightly careless renditions. In this case, every note and every phrase were carefully constructed by Lewis without prejudice to sensitivity and emotion. The impression that Lewis had made on me before, that of intellect serving emotion, was amply confirmed. No empty virtuosity, no syrupy sentimentalism, but the just use of a splendid technique to bring out every detail and shape a riveting interpretation. And again, that great quality of audible pianissimi, in the vein of pianists like Clara Haskil, Artur Schnabel and, a bit later, Alfred Brendel.

The audience would not let Lewis go without an encore. A lovely, tranquil piece I am sure I know, but cannot, for the life of me, pin a title on. On the way out, I asked two friends who are both extremely knowledgeable in music matters, but they didn’t know either. So I left the concert hall content and guilt free.