Between 2005 and 2007 Paul Lewis played all of the Beethoven sonatas in recital, and this beautifully packaged 10-CD set represents his thoughts on this monument of the piano literature at the midpoint of his career. Lewis is still young enough to perhaps offer another cycle 15 or 20 years down the road, and I hope I'm around to hear it if he does. But fear not — this present release offers much food for thought, and is a worthy competitor in the Beethoven cycle sweepstakes.
Lewis is a technically most accomplished pianist, well up to the challenges Beethoven throws in his path. But I would not consider these performances especially virtuosic in approach. He tends to take structure as his primary goal, typically creating a well organized, organically progressing rendition of each sonata. As a result, some of the most famous of these works — e.g. the "Apassionata" or the "Hammerklavie" — receive somewhat sober interpretations that lack the visceral impact produced by other great pianists. But Lewis frequently illuminates some of the less celebrated pieces with truly original and sometimes startlingly original insights. In that respect this cycle reminds me of two others in my collection: the nonpariel Schnabel mono set and the similarly self-effacing cycle by Richard Goode, another pianist more interested in structure than virtuosity. It is not that Lewis actually sounds like those artists; his sonority is darker than either of them. The similarity is more in the approach, which values the lesser known works as fully as the more celebrated ones.
Harmonia Mundi, as expected, provides the usual well-designed package, and the piano sound is generally excellent, never less than very good. Ultimately, these sonatas defy the notion of a single definitive cycle, as suggested by the 12+ inches of shelf space, LP and CD, which interpretations of these works occupy in my collection. But the "clmpleat” Beethoven collector will find enough new pleasures in this set to add it to whatever previous versions are already owned. After a few months of living with this collection, this writer is not even beginning to tire of Lewis's vision for these masterpieces.