Interview: Paul Lewis, pianist

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MORE than half of this year's Royal Scottish National Orchestra main season concerts - ten programmes in all - place the piano centre-stage.

• Pianist Paul Lewis says the great composer poses very difficult challenges, but you'll be hard-pressed to spot any problems at all when he plays with the RSNO this week

As if to press the message home, all five consecutive season openers - from last week's Ravel concerto with soloist Nicholas Algerich to the untypical prospect of the RSNO tackling Bach with Simone Dinnerstein at the end of October - feature outstanding piano concertos with a mouth-watering line-up of soloist that sets the benchmark for a potentially supreme series to come.

This week the honour goes to Liverpool-born Paul Lewis, one of the most intelligent and inquisitive piano interpreters to have emerged in Britain over the past decade. He has just spent this summer undergoing one of the most formidable challenges of his career - playing all five of Beethoven's piano concertos at the London Proms, each with a different orchestra and conductor.

The last of these - the Emperor concerto - he performed at the beginning of September with the RSNO under Stphane Denve.

"I'm looking forward to renewing that partnership," he told me two weeks ago, in advance of heading to Brazil to play more Beethoven with the San Paulo orchestra before returning to the UK for this week's reunion in Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow with the RSNO.

With all that behind him, as well as a splendid recently-released box set of the complete Beethoven concertos with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Jir Belohlvek, you'd think Beethoven would be like a stroll in the park. After all, it's not that long since the Alfred Brendel protg and former BBC Young Generation Artist made a similar sweep through the sonatas, including successive recital appearances in Edinburgh.

Surprisingly, he found this summer's concerto project a pressing challenge. "For me it's a challenge to do anything at the Proms, but this was five times harder. The whole build-up creates pressure and stress, but when it comes to it and you are finally there playing concertos you love, the answer is simply to keep your head straight and get on with it," he says.

Did performing each concerto with a different orchestra and conductor make it a bigger mountain to climb? "Not really", replies Lewis, who had worked before with all the conductors except Andris Nelsons. "I was very lucky with the partnerships. There were no horrendous surprises. Every time I come back to these concertos I see passages in different contexts - how the pacing works, how things lie. It was great to work with musicians alive to that as well, who were never afraid to try new things."

But Beethoven, he says, does pose problems."His music is more or less impossible to play on modern instruments," is Lewis's surprising claim. "Take the end of the 'Waldstein' sonata, where Beethoven writes octave glissandos. Yes, you can play them on a modern Steinway, but not in the way the composer intended, asking for them to be played pianissimo. I can't do it myself, and I've never heard anyone else do it.

"You have to experiment and try to recreate what is intended, even if it means effectively transcribing the music for a modern instrument."

Listening to Lewis's immaculate and probing performances of Beethoven and Schubert - these are the composers he constantly goes back to in successive voyages of rediscovery - such difficulties are hard to spot. But it's probably the fact he keeps going back to them at all that gives his performances such authority and wisdom. That's something he has in common with the legendary Brendel. For the comparison, both in musical taste and intellectual intensity, is inescapable.

Not that Lewis would ever consider himself a mere imitator of the master, whom he first encountered as a student in 1993 playing in one of Brendel's master classes at the Guildhall School of Music. "It was very inspiring to have such close access to how he achieves certain things," Lewis recalls from ensuing lessons. "I would take on board what he was doing - certain articulations, pedal tricks and the way he balanced different colours - then take these thoughts away and experiment for myself."

Brendel's philosophy of never closing the book on interpretational possibilities has clearly rubbed off on his pupil. Why, for instance, would Lewis choose to revisit Schubert in such a big way over the next two years when he was performing and recording it so much only a few years ago? Part of the answer is simply that he never took in all the mature works last time around, so between 2011 and 2013 will not only fill in the gaps - the "Wanderer Fantasy" to the last sonata - but also perform Schubert's entire piano canon, which Scots audiences can catch in Perth Concert Hall over five recitals, beginning in February 2011.

Nor has he been doing it entirely alone. In addition to the solo piano works, he has already embarked on recordings of Schubert's three song cycles - "Die Winterreise" is already on release - with the tenor Mark Padmore, which will also form part of these live Schubert programmes.

But the attention this week is on Beethoven and his glorious "Emperor" concerto, and a recreation of the RSNO partnership that went down so well at the Proms. And, indeed, on the surprising fact that Friday's Edinburgh concert also marks Lewis's debut at the Usher Hall.

"Whenever I've been up in recent years, it's been out of action," he says, referring to its protracted refurbishment.It all adds to the excitement of a collaboration that has everything going for it.

• Paul Lewis plays Beethoven's Emperor Concerto with the RSNO at the Caird Hall Dundee, 30 September (01382 434940); the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 1 October (0131-228 1155); and Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, 2 October (0141-353 8000). www.rsno.org.uk

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