Like his mentor Alfred Brendel, Paul Lewis seems less to fit the standard mould of a concert pianist than that of a consummate musician who happens to play the piano. Having set a new benchmark for performances of Beethoven and Schubert, Brahms’s first piano concerto was always likely to be next on the list, and was the piece with which Lewis chose to make his debut with the New York Philharmonic earlier this year.
It comes as no surprise that Lewis’s approach to Brahms is more classical than romantic. Every phrase seemed carefully weighted to match the equilibrium of the next, with the piano emerging less as a dominant personality than an equal partner in the conversation. Lewis cuts a slight figure at the keyboard – though the muscularity is contained entirely within his hands, whose evenness of tone while rippling through the meditative central movement at barely audible levels was astonishing. Lewis can unleash the heavy ammunition when he needs to; he slammed down the fortissimo chords at the apex of the first movement as if undergoing a series of convulsions. Yet his entry into the great concluding fugue suggested the unassuming patience of a man naturally inclined to take his place in the queue.
For all its formal perfection, Brahms’s concerto is a sombre piece and not exactly overburdened with melody. If anything, Dvořák’s relentlessly cheerful Eighth Symphony errs in the opposite extreme; as if the composer, exulting in the birdsong and folk dances of his homeland, was determined to ensure that one might be able to whistle every bar. Though not the most frequently programmed of Dvořák’s symphonies, Sir Mark Elder knows it well enough to perform it without a score, and the result was like being conducted on a free and easy stroll through a Bohemian forest.
• Ends 19 October. Box office: 0161-907 9000. Venue: Bridgewater Hall, Manchester