Paul Lewis and the Last Three Sonatas of Beethoven

CanadaCanada  Beethoven: Paul Lewis (piano), Vancouver Playhouse, Vancouver, 3.5. 2015 (GN)

Sonata in E major, Op. 109
Sonata in A-flat major, Op. 110
Sonata in C minor, Op. 111


Pianist Alfred Brendel was often committed to the idea that certain groupings of a composer’s works gain from being performed together, and that this conjunction yields something greater than the sum of its parts. In the late 1980s, he advocated playing the last three Schubert sonatas together, and his talented student Paul Lewis followed his lead just a few years ago. However, I did not find much truly ‘new’ illumination out of either traversal, possibly because I am trapped into thinking of each sonata as a beautifully self-contained entity, and possibly because there was a tendency for both artists to rush a little through some movements, given the sheer demands of keeping concentration in place for so long. Now we come to the last three sonatas of Beethoven, which Brendel recorded together in the 1990s, and Paul Lewis performs on this occasion. Lewis is well known for his distinguished traversal of the complete Beethoven cycle for Harmonia Mundi around a decade ago, and while his thoughts appear to have changed markedly, I finally found myself a believer. I was able to understand how each of these three masterpieces could fit into one ongoing and illuminating narrative  ̶  as a sort of ‘super’ sonata, with each of the works as one movement in an integrated whole. I must add that the special illumination was not fully apparent right after the concert; a day later, it was.

One can always count on Lewis for performances of strong integrity, sharp intelligence and a natural sense of motion. But how exactly do you start the E major Sonata when there is a much longer journey ahead than just that? As might be expected, in a somewhat uncomplicated way, perhaps more in the light of day than in shadows, conscientiously setting its motion in place. There was a nice fluency to the opening movement, occasionally reaching out for dramatic power and little bits of colour too. Sometimes the recurring falling motive settled exactly as raindrops would. However, I would not call this a sharply-etched interpretation, more one of warmth and flow. The lovely Andante carried this on, sometimes hinting at a Schubertian feeling, but not drawing special attention to its enigmatic little flights of improvisation later on.

There is a natural link in feeling to the opening of the A flat major sonata, and the flowing posture suited it admirably. There were certainly moments of motoric energy and dramatic thrust present, but I would call the treatment more contemplative and human overall. After strong rhythmic accents propelled the middle movement home, a relative calm initiated the journey into Beethoven’s closing storm of counterpoint. Yet again it was less the formal fugal features that stood out and more the phrases shaped with arch and flow, a gentle rubato ushering in a deep unremitting sadness. This was very Schubertian and most subtly achieved: after the great eruption of the hammered chords (beautifully judged), I truly felt a glimpse of the same fragility that one finds, say, following the great climax in the second movement of Schubert’s great Sonata in A major, D. 959. This turned out to be one of the last really ‘human’ expressions in the narrative.

The final sonata started from a much rougher, uncompromising posture, and continued moving in stranger and stranger directions  ̶  essentially ‘out of this world’. There was still a sense of stability in the first movement, alternating between a strongly impetuous and an almost Ländler-like gait, but not thereafter. The closing movement embodied an almost complete dissolution of control: the dense counterpoint delivered with a waltz-like giddiness, the improvisational frenzy crazy, wild and unstoppable. The very high notes pounded with such force, and later, the silencing high trills  ̶  seemingly sustained for an eternity  ̶  stood over it all like massive warning signs from elsewhere. This was not a Schubertian ‘Totentanz’; this was some unearthly type of terror, forbidding. haunting, perhaps non-understandable to mere mortals.

The traversal turned out to be most revealing, largely predicated on the extreme contrast between a very human Beethoven at the end of the 31st sonata and the ‘beyond human’ Beethoven at the close of the 32nd. If one were to take each sonata’s interpretation by itself, one could possibly quibble. Were the earlier sonatas sometimes too yielding and not sharp enough in expression? Is it not possible to find the ‘strangeness’ of the last sonata in its predecessors too? Yet these concerns hardly matter: Paul Lewis’ story was absolutely fixating and quite sufficient to send everyone home freshly illumined. Indeed, both amazed and somewhat shaken.

Geoffrey Newman

Previously published in a slightly different form on

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