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I don’t usually write reviews of performances on this blog. I’m not a music critic, and there are lots of other bloggers who have that ground covered.
But I feel compelled to write about the astonishing debut that the British pianist Paul Lewis made with the New York Philharmonic last week when he played Brahms’s Piano Concerto No. 1. To be accurate, I would like to comment on his performance in an open rehearsal that I heard on April 10th, the morning of his official Philharmonic debut. It was beyond wonderful.
On very rare occasions – and I’ll tell you about some of them – you hear an artist and cannot quite believe what you are hearing. All the components of a great performance are there – the technique, the thoughtful preparation and planning of dynamics, the attention to balance with an orchestra – but all that stuff disappears and the music seems to explode out like a living entity that is much, much more than the sum of all the parts.
Here’s a video of Lewis playing the Beethoven Piano Concerto #3 with the Halle Orchestra. Let the magic start.

There are times when you sit in disbelief, not quite believing that what you are hearing is really coming from that pianist, not really coming from that orchestra. That is exactly what happened when Mr. Lewis played the rehearsal that I heard. It was one of those magical times.  

A Life List of Magical Pianists
Here’s my life list of a few pianists I have heard make it happen . . .

Artur Balsam (1906-1944) – When I worked at the Manhattan School of Music back in the late 1970s, Balsam was on the faculty. I heard him play works by Mozart and Haydn – his specialty – as well as come chamber works. It was late in his life, and Balsam had literally “been through the wringer” after having coronary bypass surgery, but his playing was magical.  As was the case with Paul Lewis, you sat there and couldn’t believe what you were hearing.
Here’s a recording – audio only – of Balsam doing what he did best, playing a Mozart sonata. Note that the picture below is definitely NOT one of Artur Balsam . . . 


Andrew Tunis –This Canadian-born pianist was a student of Balsam’s at that same time. I remember talking with him about how neither of us understood how Balsam did what he did to produce such magical music. But then I heard Tunis play the Brahms Concerto No. 1 with one of the Manhattan School’s orchestras, and there it was again. I heard hundreds of student performances in those days, but Tunis really “had it.” I went up to him afterwards and said, “That was the best performance I have ever heard here, either from a student or a member of the faculty.” Tunis is now performing and teaching in Canada.
Unfortunately, I can only find videos that show Tunis accompanying student artists. If I can discover something more substantial, I will fill you in with another post on this blog.

Emanuel Ax – This guy has got it too, in spades. His performances of the Beethoven concertos with the New York Philharmonic have made the music leap off the page and come to life in astonishing, unparalleled ways.
Here’s a performance of Ax performing the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1. You’ll hear the magic happen here. `Nuff said.