Recording and concerts with Paul Lewis

A few posts back I talked about the fun of rehearsing Schubert piano duets with Paul, and we have just completed a run of concerts and a recording of the works (comprising four pieces from the last year of Schubert's life, including the great Fantasie, and two sets of variations)

Piano duet is perhaps the most difficult medium for a pianist to work in. Of course, the first thing is that it is physically awkward, with elbows jostling and fingers getting tangled up, but that's just the start. Only one person can pedal at a time, so someone has to cede control of this crucial tool to their partner who inevitably has different pedalling instincts. Even if they didn't, the instinct is initially to pedal in accordance with one's own part which can ruin the sound of the other part. On the other hand, pedalling in a way which supports a melody you're not yourself playing can be surprisingly tricky. And sometimes pedalling conflicts are impossible to resolve, forcing one to chose between the character of one part or the other.

Then there is the problem of timing. Piano notes have a very percussive start, which means that it is exceptionally hard for two players to make chords sound together - any discrepancy of more than one or two hundredths of a second is audible. This can be a serious headache for music which needs rhythmic flexibility.

Finally one has to create a good balance between the different parts, and this can go strongly against a pianist's instincts. It's the nature of piano playing that one deals in foreground and background, projecting one line above the others; it's rather rare that everything one plays needs to be in the background, even when accompanying another instrument. But in piano duet, it is extremely easy to make the texture very cluttered and to obscure the most important line or lines. As a result to play at the right level sometimes feels as if one is hardly playing at all.

So much for the difficulties. In spite of these, or perhaps even because of them, this has been one of the most enjoyable projects I've ever participated in. The process of rehearsing was great fun as it needs to be for piano duet, I think - otherwise it gets very irritating constantly being told to play quieter! As ever, playing music with friends makes all the difference. The people at the Aldeburgh Festival kindly provided us with a space to rehearse for three days, away from all distractions except for Adnams bitter and one of the best chippies in the country. Our first concert in Norwich already felt very good, and the subsequent concerts got better and better. Finally there was the recording in Potton Hall, taking us full circle back to Suffolk. This was a really inspiring experience, both for what I learned from Paul (everything he does is full of quality) and for the feeling of joint commitment and musical understanding which seemed to unite us. It will be a few months before we get to hear the result of our labours, and probably the end of the year before it's released, but I already feel confident that this is a CD of which I'll be very proud.

As a footnote, Paul has just launched his website. You can find it here:


Dear Steven, I just read your blogs and found them really interesting and a great insight into what a pianist has to go through. We non-pianists just take it for granted you practise, then you play. Ha, ha. You've set me straight on that one. Your pictures and description of Scotland moved me....I was born there as you may know and although I was brought up in London, whenever I hear bagpipes, or see a kilt, or glorious pictures, such as yours, my heart beats faster and I feel an overwhelming love for it. Wish you would come back here to play. There is a wonderful venue two blocks from my house, with exceptional acoustics (think I spelt that wrong).It is called Strathmore Music Center..check with your agent or manager. Love to you and Jeanie..........Betty

Posted by Betty Sekhri on 26 October 2010