Paul Lewis to the Rescue at Tetbury

Schubert: Paul Lewis (piano), Tetbury Music Festival, St Marys’ Parish Church, Tetbury, 4.10.2012. (RJ)

Piano Sonata No. 19 in C minor, D598
Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D959
Piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat major, D960

Tetbury was due to open its tenth Tetbury Music Festival with a gala recital by Dame Mitsuko Uchida, but plans had to be changed abruptly when Dame Mitsuko fell ill. By great good fortune the organisers were able to summon the aid of another eminent pianist in the shape of Paul Lewis. The programme of Schumann and Schoenberg was replaced with one devoted to the music of another composer whose name begins with the letters sch: Franz Schubert.

Over the past year or so Mr Lewis has been engaged on a musical journey through all of Schubert’s mature works; at the 2011 Tetbury Festival he performed the Four Impromptus, D935, Moments Musicaux, D780 and the Wandererfantasie, D760. This time he has reached the culmination of the journey – Schubert’s final three sonatas written in the summer of 1828. There is much to be said for playing them as a trilogy, though since these sonatas are far more expansive than most of Beethoven’s, it does make for a long evening – “three portions of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on top of one another”, as a friend put it. Yet those who managed to stay the course had an immensely satisfying time.

The first movement of No. 19 eased us gently into the evening; this was Schubert at his most genial though there were a few anxious interruptions. The first theme of the Adagio created an atmosphere of complete calm which the second more solemn – even sinister – subject tended to disrupt. One detected little joy in the sombre Menuetto, but the lively tarantella of the finale more than made up for this, and in this splendid interpretation one could hear the orchestral effects Schubert would have been striving for if he had had greater forces at his disposal.

There was no sense of rush in the opening movement of No. 20, but the slow movement made a particularly strong impression when the plaintive pilgrim chant was supplanted by a diversion into a nightmarish fantasy in which the wanderer meets unexpected horrors and perils culminating in a sudden stop. The pianist pulled no punches here. Thankfully, the movement got back on track and the pilgrims continued their pious journey. The scherzo was a much more amiable affair full of bounce and fun, while the tranquil finale could not disguise its elements of wistfulness and sadness.

By this stage I felt Paul Lewis had brought us to a much clearer appreciation of Schubert’s thought processes (or should we say “soul”?) during his final months on earth. I realise one should not try to attribute too many biographical details to music, but in the slow movement of Sonata No. 21 one could certainly make out a bell tolling in the distance and the hymn-like melody of the second subject in a lower register offered a measure of solace. The scherzo attempted to dissipate the gloom – but not with any sense of conviction, while the last movement seemed to be a throwback to happier, more carefree times. This was very much a summation of Schubert’s life and career and I felt grateful to the soloist for the insights into the composer that he shared with a very appreciative audience. Those who had lamented the non-appearance of Dame Mitsuko went away moved, some overwhelmed by Mr Lewis’s musicianship.

As far as I know, the rest of the Festival will run according to schedule. After a concert on Friday 4th in which The Sixteen perform Brahms’ German Requiem with piano duet accompaniment, the Gould Trio step onto the rostrum on Saturday 6th to play Fauré, Schumann, Janàček and Beethoven in the morning. The evening concert to devoted to a programme of Bach’s instrumental music performed by Arcangelo directed by Jonathan Cohen (who, incidentally, is taking over as artistic director of the Festival for 2013.) The grand finale on Sunday at 5pm will be Monteverdi’s Vespers of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1610) sung by the Magdalena Consort under Peter Harvey – a very appropriate choice in a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and also Mary Magdalene.

In its ten years this small festival has gained a solid reputation in the musical world, so the co-directors, Elise Smith and Graham Kean who are stepping down at this juncture, can consider themselves well satisfied with their achievement.

Roger Jones