A Distinguished Schubert Recital from Paul Lewis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Paul Lewis (piano), St. James’ Church, Chipping Campden, 15.5.2013 (JQ)

Sonata in C minor, D 958
Sonata in A major, D 959
Sonata in B flat major, D 960

Paul Lewis is the President of the Chipping Campden International Music Festival and despite his demanding international schedule he is no mere figurehead. He regularly gives a recital at the Festival and this year he’s doing even more than that for he will be playing the Brahms D minor Piano Concerto on the last night of the festival. For the last two years he’s been concentrating on the piano music of Schubert in his recital programmes and last year Chipping Campden hosted a fine recital that included two sonatas (review). His Schubert journey is now approaching the end and fittingly Lewis brought the last three sonatas to the Cotswolds for this recital.

A couple of points are worth making, I think, prior to considering the performances. So great was the demand for tickets for this event that I found myself in a seat in the far back corner of the church. A pillar obstructed my view of the platform so that all I could see of Paul Lewis was an occasional glimpse of his right hand. In many other venues such a ‘vantage point’ would have been disastrous but that was not the case here. The acoustics of St. James’ Church are exceptionally fine and the piano sound carried to me truthfully and clearly. Which leads me to the second point: what a fine piano sound it was! The Festival had the unexpected opportunity to acquire the Steinway which has been hired for each of the previous festivals. An appeal was launched with Alfred Brendel, no less, as its patron and the appeal was successful: the piano was formally purchased last week. On the evidence of this recital and Steven Osborne’s thrilling Messiaen recital, which placed very different demands on the instrument (review), I would say that the Festival has made a very sound investment indeed.

Schubert’s piano music and Steinway pianos could have been made for each other. The tone and projection of this instrument seemed to suit both the music and Paul Lewis’ approach to it very well indeed.

These three sonatas were all written in the last few months of Schubert’s life and they represent, surely, the pinnacle of his achievement in the genre. Each is on an expansive scale and in order to accommodate them all in a single programme Paul Lewis omitted the exposition repeat in the first movement of each sonata. One might regret the loss of music but this was a pragmatic decision: with all three repeats included the evening would have been very long indeed. And the artistic gains of hearing the sonatas as a triptych outweighed any disappointment at the loss of the repeats.

In the first movement of D 958 Schubert offers vigorous music as well as characteristically graceful episodes. Lewis’s playing had strength where required but also warmth in the lyrical passages; these were to be features of his playing throughout the evening. I admired greatly the poise that he brought to the lovely second movement while the finale, taken attacca after the Menuetto, had for most of the time a momentum that was impish in places though, as usual, Lewis relaxed expertly when one of Schubert’s lovely liquid episodes was reached.

The opening Allegro of D 959 found Lewis projecting the dramatic passages powerfully. Elsewhere, his sense of line was excellent in the many lyrical stretches and time and again his playing demonstrated great finesse. Nowhere was this latter quality more in evidence than in the wonderful moments of subdued fantasy at the movement’s end: that was one of the imaginative and technical peaks of the recital. The Andantino found Lewis gently probing in the quieter outer sections, while he invested the powerful central section with passion and urgency. Deft fingerwork was on display in the Scherzo. The gentle, unassuming theme of the Rondo finale is quintessentially Schubertian. Lewis’ way with the theme was very pleasing: relaxed yet with purpose. Prior to the concert I’d been listening again to his 2002 Harmonia Mundi recording of the sonata. That’s very fine but I had the impression that in this recital Lewis was just a touch more relaxed and expansive with the theme of this movement – to its benefit. Schubert’s treatment of the rondo theme is varied and eventful and I thought Lewis was most persuasive. Here, as elsewhere in the programme, he showed a fine and very natural-seeming sense of Schubertian rubato.

The second half was devoted to the great B flat sonata, D 960. The wonderful first movement unfolded beautifully. I thought Lewis’ playing was masterly, giving us a sense of inevitability as the music progressed. There were countless wonderful pianistic touches and Lewis showed great understanding of and empathy with Schubert’s style during the composer’s extensive discussion of his material in the development section. There is much lyrical grace in this movement but there are dark undercurrents too and these were brought out in the performance we heard. The reading of the richly expressive Andante sostenuto was profoundly satisfying. In Paul Lewis’ hands everything seemed to fall effortlessly into place although, of course, such apparent effortlessness is, in truth, the product of considerable thought about the music and a flawless technique. I admired the way the gentle melancholy of the music was realised, especially in the exquisite closing pages. The brief scherzo was a delight, the theme propelled along with freewheeling gaiety. The vivacious finale was another conspicuous success: Lewis brought marvellous energy to the music as well as a fine sense of style.

Paul Lewis has an enviable reputation as an interpreter of Schubert and this distinguished recital showed just why that reputation is so deserved.

John Quinn