A Magnificent Schubert Recital by Paul Lewis in Chipping Campden

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Schubert: Paul Lewis (piano). St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 8.5.2012 (JQ)

German Dances, D.783
Allegretto in C minor, D. 915
Sonata for Piano in A minor, D. 784
Sonata for Piano in A minor, D. 845

The little town of Chipping Campden nestles in the Gloucestershire Cotswolds and is the quintessential Cotswold town, containing as it does a large number of lovely and charming houses and other buildings constructed from the honey-coloured Cotswold stone. It also boasts a fine fifteenth-century parish church, which is an excellent example of the Cotswold wool churches with its high, wood panelled ceiling, tall slender columns and light, airy interior. The church is also the primary venue for the town’s thriving music festival, now in its 11th year. The festival scored something of a coup when the fine British pianist, Paul Lewis, agreed to be its president. Despite an engagement calendar that takes him all over the world Lewis clearly takes an active interest in the festival and as part of his two-year exploration of Schubert’s later piano music – in concert and in the recording studios – he came to Chipping Campden to give this recital, which was the first major concert of the festival. I’d not attended a concert in this church before but it proved to have a most satisfactory acoustic.

Lewis opened with the sixteen German Dances of 1823/4. These are tiny pieces – even with both sections of each dance repeated the whole set, played continuously, lasts less than fifteen minutes. However, despite their brevity the Dances contain many delights and Lewis played them expertly, with some exquisite touches of rubato especially. In his hands the music was full of delicacy and charm. Interestingly, he followed the Dances with the Allegretto in C minor without a pause. This piece, composed in 1827, has an unprepossessing title and sometimes I’ve heard the piece played in a pretty straightforward way, which works reasonably well. However, Lewis was much more imaginative, interpreting allegretto quite slowly and his quieter dynamics were very subdued. This imparted an intensity to the music which was quite unexpected –at least to me. The darkness that Lewis brought to the music and the lack of a break after the Dances meant that the Allegretto formed a most effective bridge between the lightness of the Dances and the much darker reaches of the first A minor sonata.

The Sonata D.874 dates from 1823 and it’s a fine work. For me, Lewis’s reading of the powerful, dark first movement was a highlight of the evening. His playing was searching and he brought out all the drama in Schubert’s writing. The second subject is somewhat more easeful but even here there are dark moments and there’s tension even in the quiet music – or, rather, there is tension in as fine a performance such as this one. Time and again I admired Lewis’s wonderful touch in the more delicate music and, equally, the power that he could generate without ever forcing the tone of the Steinway on which he played. The short slow movement was marvellously poised in this performance; Lewis displayed a fine feeling for pianistic poetry. In the finale the quicksilver passages flashed by in a whirl of notes, superbly articulated. This was an exciting end to a splendid reading of the sonata.

After the interval we heard another A minor sonata, D.845, which was composed in 1825. The substantial first movement opens with a questioning little figure, which reappears time and again throughout the movement. Each time it did – and Schubert varies the treatment of it quite subtly – Lewis’s presentation seemed just right. There is real backbone to this music and that was apparent in Lewis’s sinewy, dramatic reading. I admired his use of dynamic contrast, which seemed as natural and unforced as it was effective. Just as admirable was the way in which he demonstrated that he understands instinctively how to use silences – rests and pauses – in Schubert. At the end of the movement he generated immense power but, once again, the tone quality was not sacrificed.

The relaxed and graceful start of the second movement was a perfect foil to the rigours of the preceding music. Lewis gave a delightful account of the variations in this movement and then his reading of the scherzo was full of vitality and rhythmic impetus. The easeful trio section was beautifully judged; every note and phrase seemed perfectly weighted. He launched into the finale with scarcely a pause. Here the music is often urgent and fiery, Schubert getting close to Beethoven. Lewis projected this music strongly in a vigorous and exciting performance.

The Chipping Campden audience was one of the most attentive I’ve encountered for a long time. There was a welcome absence of intrusive coughing and even though the wooden benches in the church are not exactly designed for comfort the capacity audience scarcely fidgeted at all. That, I’m sure, was a tribute as much to the magnetic artistry of Paul Lewis as to the inherent courtesy of his audience. In response to a warm ovation Paul Lewis admitted that it had been “very cruel” of him to programme “two of Schubert’s blackest sonatas” in the same recital. He sent us home with something a little lighter ringing in our ears, the Hungarian Melody in B minor, D.817, of which he gave an expertly turned performance.

Auspiciously launched by its president, the Chipping Campden Festival continues until 19 May. Details of the remaining events on the enticing programme can be found on the festival website.

John Quinn