Nicola Lisle talks to pianist Paul Lewis about his Sheldonian recital tomorrow night

Most classical musicians come from musical homes, grow up surrounded by classical music and start playing an instrument when they’re barely out of nappies.

Then there’s musicians like pianist Paul Lewis, who broke the mould by coming from a virtually music-free household and who found his musical inspiration from his local library.

“There’s no music in the family,” he says.

“There was a library round the corner that was well stocked with records and I felt I wanted to explore classical music.”

He started piano lessons at the relatively late age of twelve but had, as he says, been “messing around on the piano” from very early on.

“I was breaking into the school assembly hall at lunchtimes, picking out tunes and improvising and being told off!” he chuckles. “I was self-taught before I had formal lessons.”

Why the piano?

“Well, I was attracted to the piano. There’s so much good music for it. I started off trying to play the cello and I was rubbish.

“The piano always felt physically more like my instrument. The cello never did. I love the cello and wish I could play it, but I never could. I just felt comfortable with the piano.”

Quickly making up for lost time, Paul went to Chetham’s Music School at 14 before going on to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama at 18.

Since then, he’s become one of the UK’s most outstanding pianists, and is a regular and popular visitor to Oxford.

Tomorrow night he will be playing what he describes as a dance-inspired programme at the Sheldonian, to include JS Bach Partita No.1 in B flat major, Beethoven Piano Sonata No.4 in E flat, Chopin Three waltzes and Weber Piano Sonata No.2 in A flat.

“They’re all pieces I love,” he says. “The Weber sonata is very rarely played these days. It used to be very fashionable decades ago, but then went out of fashion, like a lot of Weber. But it’s such a wonderful piece.”

The idea of the dance theme came from programming around the Weber piece.

“There’s so much of the ballroom in the Weber sonata, and this goes through the programme with different types of dance.

“You have the Bach Partita, each movement of which is a dance. There are elements of dance in the Beethoven – the slow movement has a sarabande, for instance – then you have the three Chopin waltzes.”

Paul is looking forward to renewing his acquaintance with the Sheldonian Theatre, where he has performed many times before.

“The Sheldonian’s wonderful,” he says.

“It’s unique. I can’t think of a venue remotely like it – it totally has its own atmosphere, its own sense of occasion.

“The first concert I went to at the Sheldonian was Alfred Brendel giving a piano recital many years ago. That made a huge impression on me.

“I think what I like about the Sheldonian is you get a sense of space, but there’s also a sense of intimacy.

“You can have both worlds there, and I think the acoustic really accommodates that.

“It works really well for solo piano.”

  • Paul Lewis, piano
  • Sheldonian Theatre,
  • Oxford
  • Friday, 7.30pm
  • Tickets: 01865 244806
  • or