Playfulness and tragedy in an evening of Schubert sonatas with Paul Lewis

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Paul Lewis (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 30.11.2022. (JC)

Paul Lewis playing previously at the Wigmore Hall

Schubert – Piano Sonata in E-flat, D. 568; Piano Sonata in A minor, D. 784; Piano Sonata in D, D. 850.

Paul Lewis’ recital of Schubert sonatas at the Wigmore Hall opened with a harmonious and warm E-flat major sonority from the Sonata D. 568; that is, before a lone soprano hearing aid — rather badly tuned, unfortunately — decided to join in and continue singing until Lewis was forced to acknowledge its presence by letting it continue solo. What followed was a rather comically awkward two minutes in which a roomful of audience, the stewards, the pianist and the director of the Hall participated in a collaborative effort to seek the source — of course, without pointing any fingers or twisting one’s neck too much, but simply silently waiting.

Eventually, the noise died down enough for Lewis to continue, and he began the E-flat major Piano Sonata D. 568 again. The unfortunate incident did unsettle — albeit very slightly — the pianist, as the textures in the first movement were slightly blurred by the pedals (I only say this because later on Lewis showed how perfectly articulate he could be), but the playful crossing between E-flat major and minor tonality in the first movement were beautifully subtle. Lewis had a way with the accompaniment-like left hand in the second movement that made the melody in the right hand soar as if we were hearing a lieder being sung. The silences and pauses were always wistful and slightly anticipatory, creating a feeling of the music hovering, always having us guess at where it was going to go. Lewis’ tone varied much more in the third movement; rich and luscious at times, shimmering and floating at others, anticipating the range of sounds he could conjure from the piano in the later two sonatas he was to perform that evening.

Lewis’ performance of Schubert’s tragic A minor Sonata D. 784 was gripping and intense in a way that draws you in rather than imposes itself. The silences of the first movement, together with the extreme pianissimos Lewis somehow managed to evince from the piano relayed an intense anguish which existed in Lewis’ refined and nuanced imagination of Schubert’s music. The repressed emotions contained in the dim sound space he created showed us a dark world with seemingly no light, until Lewis played the A major chord, making that singular moment all the more exquisite. It was really quite an intense experience.

The grand and boisterous D major Sonata D. 850, composed when Schubert was holidaying in the mountain resort of Bad Gastein, comprised all of the second half of Lewis’ Wigmore recital. Despite its length, I was spellbound for the whole of it, and time flew by. Lewis took the first movement at a fast pace, making it very exciting; this required a quick shift between different moods as Schubert’s music traverses through an assortment of keys, which Lewis pulled off beautifully. There were so many colours in the Andante con moto; Lewis’ playing was never superficial, and each shading was carefully considered despite appearing spontaneous. Just when you think he couldn’t possibly go any softer, he proves you wrong, and you are drawn deeper and deeper into his mesmerising soundworld, one that emanates from within him even as he interprets notes from without. The Rondo final movement was played with such a delicate touch that it added a touch of poignancy to the playfulness of the jaunty main theme. It reminded me of the great pianist-teacher Heinrich Neuhaus’ emphasis on simplicity and naturalness in musical expression; this seemed to me manifested in Lewis’ performance as he revealed, with his beautifully simple performance of the Rondo finale of the D major Sonata, all the complex and meaningful wonders behind such simple and naïve music.

Jeremy Chan

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