Outstanding Schubert from Paul Lewis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Paul Lewis (piano,) Wigmore Hall, London 15.11.2012 (RB)

Piano Sonata in C minor D958
Piano Sonata in A D959
Piano Sonata in B Flat D960

Paul Lewis is one of the foremost interpreters of the Classical piano repertoire and has just won vast critical acclaim for his recording of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas. For this concert he set himself the no less daunting task of playing Schubert’s last three piano sonatas in one sitting. All three sonatas are towering works of the Classical repertoire and demand the highest standards of musicianship, a prodigious technique and an acute sensitivity to Schubert’s profound and poetic musical idiom.

Schubert’s C minor sonata is darker in mood than its two companion pieces and, while it possesses some gorgeous melodies and extraordinary harmonic shifts, it took some time for the general public to warm to its depressed and unsettled mood and it was previously regarded as the Cinderella of the trilogy. Lewis infused the opening allegro with drama, conjuring a range of highly coloured sonorities from the whirling passagework. He was acutely sensitive to changes of mood and his well-judged rubato revealed Schubert’s extraordinary harmonic insights in a fresh and immediate way. He decided – very sensibly in my view, given the length of the concert – to omit the exposition repeat both in this sonata and in the other two. The hymn-like melody which opens the adagio was played in a natural and unaffected way with Lewis bringing out the pathos of the music with playing of the utmost restraint and sensitivity. As the movement unfolded Lewis did a wonderful job in revealing the inner voices without impeding the natural ebb and flow of the music. His handling of the hushed pianissimi, the silences and the extraordinary modulations at the end of the movement showed a great musician and poet at work. The unsettled character of the Menuetto was brilliantly captured while the trio was supremely elegant and full of Viennese charm. The final galloping tarantella is a nightmarish creation, full of manic energy. Lewis’ playing of the opening was rhythmically tight and incisive although for me it did not quite have the edginess and sense of unease that it should. As the movement unfolded, however, Lewis did a wonderful job in bringing out the sense of struggle and conflict at the heart of this movement, and of conveying the manic shifts in mood.

After such an emotional roller coaster ride, I expected Lewis to take a short break but he came back on to the stage almost immediately and launched into the great A major sonata. The opening allegro was elegant and beautifully phrased while the lyrical second subject was allowed to unfold naturally and gracefully. The andantino slow movement is a barcarolle which reflects Schubert’s melancholic and troubled state of mind. Lewis used flexible phrasing and rubato and deployed a warm tone in the opening section, relishing Schubert’s anguished melodies. The middle section is an extraordinary piece of writing and is the equivalent of a musical nervous breakdown – we are in the world of the late Heine songs where the composer’s grip on reality appears tenuous. The ghostly phrase which ushered in this passage was really disquieting while the ensuing figurations were allowed to build in a climatic way – this was an absolutely superb piece of playing. The scherzo was deliciously light and refreshing with Lewis deploying a deft range of touch and articulation. The long melodies in the finale were beautifully shaped with Lewis deploying an imaginative range of colours and sonorities and keeping a tight grip on structure.

The opening of Schubert’s piano sonata in B flat is marked molto moderato and there is a wide range of views on how fast the music showed be played – Richter’s interpretation, for example, is very slow but also exceptionally beautiful. Lewis seemed to find exactly the right tempo, allowing the music to breathe while simultaneously maintaining a natural flow. There were some wonderful tonal contrasts – a real play of light and shade – in the opening two themes while Lewis exercised immaculate control of tone, texture and dynamics as the music unfolded. Occasionally I would have liked to hear a wider range of dynamics and a greater sense of resolution in the music but these are minor quibbles and there is no faulting Lewis’ very serene and radiant interpretation. The andante was played with rapt eloquence and intensity with the layering of sound handled very adroitly. The scherzo was played with supreme lightness and dexterity and bubbled along in an artless and unaffected way. Lewis once again allowed the music to breathe in the finale and I was struck by the way in which he brought out the intricate motivic relationships. The coda was brisk and ebullient, bringing the evening’s proceedings to a close. It is again a mark of good judgement that Lewis decided not to play an encore.

So is Lewis now ready to join his mentor Alfred Brendel in the front rank of Schubert interpreters? Having listened to this concert, I would have to say that he is up there with the very best of them.

Robert Beattie