Prom, Prom, Prom!

The Proms kick off tonight! These opening few days are an ear-boggling prospect, involving as they do a) Mahler 8, b) Die Meistersinger, with Bryn Terfel, c) Simon Boccanegra, with Domingo, and d) heady Russian stuff with Petrenko and Trpceski. If you spot people in anoraks carrying sandwiches walking upside down on the sky in Kensington Gardens, that’ll be the season-ticket holders who’ve gone to the lot.

Someone who has to swallow extra doses at the Proms this year is pianist Paul Lewis: he’s playing all five Beethoven piano concertos in four concerts (nos. 1 & 4 will be back-to-back in one evening). I’ve written about the task facing him for the Independent today. And I thought you might enjoy the full interview transcript, so here it is.

JD: Paul, it must be a very big deal to play all five Beethoven concertos at the Proms…

PL: I wish I could say it wasn’t… Yes, it’s a huge deal, something I’ve been worried about for ages, but I’m quietly excited about it too. It’s so exciting to play at the Proms anyway, but because the Proms is the Proms you prepare very carefully for it and hope that you just worry all your nerves out so that when it comes to the crunch you can enjoy it – which is what normally happens.

JD: How does it feel to play at the Proms, rather than anywhere else?

PL: There’s just a certain kind of electricity in the air there, I don’t know what it is – something about the Albert Hall and the Proms audience. When you walk out onto the stage and you see a full Albert Hall there’s something electrifying about it, and if you’ve done all your homework it’s electrifying in a good way. I think when you grow up in this country there are all these associations with the Proms – it is a unique thing. I don’t know anywhere else I’ve played in the world that’s remotely like it.

JD: The audience is a lot closer to you.

PL: Yes, you feel that – it’s quite nice, you feel people very much upon you, in a way. And the stage as well – it looks big, but for some reason the feel is relatively cosy, people are relatively bunched together and you don’t feel there are swathes of empty space. You feel quite cocooned. It’s strangely intimate – odd to say that, but physically you’re surrounded by people.

JD: Does the hall & its size change the way you play?

PL: Not particularly – of course when it’s big you just play bigger. That’s the easy bit, projecting sound and character into a big hall. But what’s really difficult, especially in the RAH, is shrinking the hall, trying to draw people in to a pianissimo which still speaks and still says something, doesn’t get completely lost in the acoustic mushrooms. That’s the challenge – but I know it’s possible. You just have to give some extra thought to how to do that.

JD: You’re performing each concert with a different orchestra and conductor – does that make the task harder?

PL: Not really – I think it makes it more interesting. I’ve worked with them all before, except Andris Nelsons: that’s the only new partnership and I’m really looking forward to that. The others I’ve worked with and we’ve really enjoyed doing things in the past, so hopefully there won’t be any testing relationships.

JD: Is it a big jump or a natural progression to move from one Beethoven concerto on to the next?

PL: There are things in common – you can always find parallels between one concerto and another. But in the case of the first concert, we’re doing the First and Fourth together and there couldn’t be a bigger contrast – the first being relatively extrovert, just revelling in the joy of playing the piano; it has that kind of freshness. The Fourth is a much more complex affair. It’ll be interesting to see how it does feel. I have played two concertos on the same evening before, but it’s always been Beethoven One and Two or two Mozart concertos; I’ve never done something as contrasting as this. But it’s just a case of clicking into a different mindset at the interval.

JD: With chocolate?

PL: Yes! That never leaves my suitcase – an essential travel item.

JD: Oh yes? Do you have a sort of survival kit?

PL: Yes! In which chocolate features prominently. JD: And what else? PL: It used to be peppermint oil, but now it’s one of those Vicks inhalers. Because there’s nothing that works better for clearing the mind just before you go on if you feel a bit foggy in the head or tired or stressed – you inhale this stuff and it really clears the head. I was quite pleased to discover that.

JD: Do you have a favourite among the five concertos?

PL: Not really, but I think the Fourth being the complex animal it is, I have a specially soft spot for it. It was also the first Beethoven concerto I learned and played – why not jump in the deep end? It’s so endlessly challenging – there’s always something you didn’t see before when you come back to any of the concertos, but it’s never more true than of the Fourth. And it’s by far the biggest challenge in terms of performance – you absolutely need to see eye to eye with the conductor and understand what each other’s doing, and with the orchestra unanimously as well. It makes life difficult, but that’s why we do it – it’s a challenge, it’s fascinating and I relish it every time: what’s it going to be like now, where’s it going to go? The first movement is almost more of a fantasy than a first-movemet of a concerto, it’s more rhapsodic than the other concerto’s first movements, and so there’s more scope for differences in interpretations, more scope to discover new things with new partnerships with conductors you’ve not worked with before.

JD: Do you have any image in your mind for the second movement, with that extraordinary dialogue between the orchestra and piano?

PL: Not exactly. I do have images in my mind for certain pieces, but for that it’s not a visual image, it’s a sort of sound image of black and white. It’s difficult to keep the piano sound completely unaffected. You can just play softly of course – but the sound itself, especially if you have a fantastic string section that plays those tuttis as you’ve never heard them before – to remain unaffected by that, that’s quite something to do. It’s happened a few times when you think “Wow!” and you get goose pimples on stage from what you’ve just heard, but you have to be a completely different character, you have to be nothing to do with that. That’s something that’s quite taxing! It can be a bit surreal if you’ve in a performance where you have that level from the orchestra; it’s difficult to separate yourself from it. That’s what we have to do all the time – to separate ourselves in a good way from what we’re doing and be aware of it from a different angle at the same time.

JD: Let’s have a sneak preview:

JD: And you’re off to Australia…

PL: It’s a three-week recital tour before the Proms – I get back a week before the first concert. I might still be on the ceiling… I go quite a lot to Australia, every year or two for the past eight years or so. It’s one of my favourite places to go and play concerts. It’s quite a packed tour with a concert at least every other day, and the distances are huge – Sydney to Perth is a bit like crossing the Atlantic. But there’s something about the energy of the place that makes it possible to do that journey and then play a concert right away. If you think about crossing the Atlantic and playing a concert in New York the same night – I’d rather do anything else, the thought is horrendous! But there’s something energising about Australia.

JD: What’s coming up next in the way of new recordings?

PL: I’ve just been doing the first edit of the Beethoven ‘Diabelli Variations’ which is due out around April next year and also the first edit of Schubert duets with Steven Osborne which I think is out in the autumn. And the Beethoven concertos are out any minute.

JD: And how’s family life?

PL: It’s great! We’ve got three healthy, cheeky kids here – 5½, 4 and 2½ – it’s fun and we’ve got a fantastic au pair. Bjorg is still in the Vertavo Quartet and they’ve just played a Wigmore Hall concert. We don’t know what we’re doing in the autumn – we’re both terribly busy – but we always manage to work something out and, thank God, the kids don’t seem affected by it so far; they probably think it’s normal. We’ll probably get it in the neck when they’re teenagers…

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