Compelling playing by Paul Lewis in less well-known Schubert at Turner Sims

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Paul Lewis (piano). Turner Sims Concert Hall, Southampton, 4.5.2023. (CK)

Paul Lewis

Schubert – Piano Sonata in C, D840 ‘Reliquie’; Piano Sonata in A, D664; Piano Sonata in A minor, D845

Paul Lewis made a welcome and keenly anticipated visit to Southampton’s Turner Sims Concert Hall as part of a busy schedule (May will also see him performing the Beethoven Concertos on three consecutive days in New Zealand). The matter in hand was Schubert: the second instalment of a four-part (mostly) chronological survey of Schubert’s mature Piano Sonatas.

He began – and began gloriously – with the Sonata in C D840, ‘Reliquie’. I have seen this two-movement torso compared to the similarly incomplete Eighth Symphony, the Unfinished, with the view that it should be as well-known: clearly, it isn’t, but the way Schubert’s inspiration courses through the opening Moderato suggests – to me, anyway – that the completed sonata might have been the equal of the late, great sonatas. Lewis’s playing made this abundantly clear; nor was there anything wrong with his playing of the Andante, which, though much admired by more competent judges than I, seems to me to exist on a slightly lower level – lacking, perhaps, the Minuet and Finale which might have illuminated its position in the sonata as a whole.

Lewis then took us back to Schubert’s early twenties, performing the charming Sonata in A, D664, as a lighter interlude before the main event. Written in the summer of 1819, which also saw the composition of the Trout Quintet, it is a similarly tuneful, sunny and untroubled work, its opening theme quintessentially Schubertian and song-like, its finale going with an irresistible swing.

And so, after the interval, to the Sonata in A minor, D845. Schubert began work on it shortly after abandoning the ‘Reliquie’, D840: its opening may remind us of the earlier work, and, much more powerfully, of Schubert’s previous Sonata in A minor, D784 (he wrote three in this key). As in that great work, Schubert begins with a handful of notes in bare octaves, which somehow create a sense of limitless space, in which the sonata (and the listener) must try to find its bearings. A handful of notes: like drops of rain on a window, like pebbles cast into a void. At each minor-key return to these notes, the impact is the same. Schubert follows them with a terse, strongly rhythmical motif – an octave drop to a fourfold hammering; Lewis played them fast, so that at times the separate hammer-blows became smudged and indistinct. But he guided us through the compelling landscapes of this tremendous movement to its magnificently stentorian conclusion.

The Andante, a set of variations on a simple theme, was wonderfully shaped and characterised, the emotional trajectory of the movement made clear – the third variation its emotional heart, discharging into the brilliant fourth and the serene fifth. It’s not Lewis’s fault that Schubert’s insistent use of a repeated note (G?) in the third and fifth variations – likened by one sympathetic commentator to ‘constant suggestions of distant horns’ – might, to a less poetic soul, be more reminiscent of the nagging sound your car makes when you haven’t got your seat belt on.

In Lewis’s hands the bright Scherzo was deftly turned; he relished both its rhythmic variety and the calm serenity of the Landler-like Trio. The finale is sterner stuff: closely allied to the finale of Mozart’s great A minor Sonata, K310, it moves with similarly restless energy to an abrupt conclusion that confirms the tragic temper of the sonata as a whole – something of which Lewis’s playing left us in no doubt.

Two slightly unworthy thoughts obtrude. Presumably, Lewis’s Schubert (I) was built around the great A minor Sonata D784; and I expect Schubert (III) will feature the spacious and magical G major, D894, leaving the mysterious constellation of the last three sonatas to provide the matter of Schubert (IV). It could be argued that this second instalment is … I was going to say the weakest, which is sacrilege considering the music on offer; perhaps I should say the least popular, which should increase my gratitude to Lewis for performing it. Perhaps Alfred Brendel, a quarter of a century ago here in the Turner Sims, was playing it safe in approaching Schubert’s last Sonata, the B-flat major D960, by way of the early A minor Sonata, D537, and the Impromptus, D935.

The other thought is this. Paul Lewis is a musician of the highest reputation around the world. He does not need to introduce himself, or the music he is about to play. Nevertheless, the absence of an encore and of any verbal communication with the audience left just the faintest trace of routine. Thank you Southampton, and goodnight. I cannot justify this impression – there was nothing perfunctory about his playing (over eighty minutes of it): It was more to do with the flavour of the event. Be assured, if Paul Lewis comes back in a few months to play the D894 I will be first in line.

Chris Kettle

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