Paul Lewis’s superb Schubert at Wigmore Hall offers no answers but is a voyage of hope and humanity

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Paul Lewis (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 1.5.2023. (CSa) 

Paul Lewis plays at Wigmore Hall

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

Paul Lewis is generally regarded as one of today’s foremost interpreters of the piano works of Beethoven and Schubert. ‘I’ve always been struck by Schubert’s lack of answers’ he said in an interview late last year for Saffron Hall, the Essex based concert venue. ‘With Beethoven, there are questions, but he almost always creates some sense of resolution. That’s rarely the case with Schubert. And yet there is a sense of hope. For me that makes him the most human of all composers – especially now, when we don’t have the answers to very much.’

The earliest of the three sonatas chosen by Lewis to mark the release of his new Schubert album with Harmonia Mundi, and which he performed in his latest Wigmore Hall Schubert series, was the Sonata in A, D664. Jubilant and sublimely beautiful, Schubert wrote it in 1819, while holidaying in the glorious countryside surrounding the upper Austrian city of Steyr. He was just 22 years old and infatuated with the ‘very pretty’ Josephine von Koller, to whom he dedicated the work. The ‘Little Sonata’, as it is commonly known, is probably one of his most familiar. ‘I played it 20 years ago when I did my last sonata series and haven’t played it since’, confessed Lewis. ‘Back then, it was my least favourite Schubert sonata, probably because it’s so popular and I didn’t see the depth in it. Coming back to it, I see what I missed the first time around – it is a pleasure to play.’ Capturing the innocence and serenity of the opening theme of the Allegro moderato, and subtly referencing its recurring Beethovenian rhythms, Lewis dexterously shared his pleasure while excavating its hidden depths. The meditative, dance-like Andante – a simple but emotionally nuanced melody – was played with finesse, while the lilting final movement (Allegro) became, in Lewis’s hands, a heavenly Viennese waltz.

Lewis began and ended his recital with sonatas composed by Schubert in 1825, while he was recovering from the early stages of syphilis and just three years before his death. The first half of the concert started with D840, the two movement ‘Reliquie’, one of the composer’s uncompleted masterpieces. Once compared by Lewis to Michelangelo’s great ‘unfinished’ statues of prisoners wrestling their way free from blocks of stone, D 840 is every bit as ‘finished’ as Schubert intended it to be. ‘It is,’ Lewis has declared, ‘a piano redaction of an unfinished orchestral score [in which] you have to realise the implied symphonic harmonies … and colours.’ In this performance, Lewis characterised the opening themes of the Moderato with a combination of precision, power and lyricism, and drew from the Andante a perfect mix of menace and dance.

The second half comprised the sonata in A minor, D845. Lewis’s opening Moderato was deft and measured, but its brooding intensity was never far from the surface. Similarly, the Andante poco mosso was etched with moments of poetic lightness, vividly contrasting with passages of the darkest tragedy. Lewis filled the third movement, an energetic and agitated Scherzo, with a helter-skelter of surprises: noble fanfares, unexpected outbursts and sudden stops, and gave us a rollicking and joyous final moto perpetuo Rondo.

Predictably, the insatiable audience demanded an encore and laughed appreciatively when offered something ‘less temperamental’. A translucent, almost painterly account of Schubert’s Moment Musical No.6, D780, concluded an evening of supreme artistry.

Chris Sallon

Leave a Comment