Late Schubert of outstanding sensitivity and power from Paul Lewis in Southampton

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Paul Lewis (piano). Turner Sims, Southampton, 19.3.2024. (CK)

Paul Lewis © YST Conservatory of Music

Schubert – Piano Sonata No.19 in C minor, D958; Piano Sonata No.20 in A, D959; Piano Sonata No.21 in B-flat, D960

‘To suggest that the last three sonatas were conceived as a consciously planned triptych would be far-fetched, and a performance of all three of them in succession would put an impossible strain on both pianist and audience.’ So wrote the Schubert scholar Philip Radcliffe in his guide to the sonatas (BBC Music GuidesSchubert Piano Sonatas), published over half a century ago. Yet that is precisely what Paul Lewis did in this concert – and not just as a one-off: the programme informed us that he has performed his four-part Schubert Piano Sonata series ‘at Turner Sims and over 25 other venues and festivals around the world’.

It didn’t show. There was nothing routine about these performances, no hint of fatigue or of autopilot: all three sonatas were played as if for the first time. The C minor, D958 is usually considered the least well-known (perhaps because of its overall sombre tone); yet after its dramatic opening and its contrasting second theme – deliciously pointed – it already felt as if imaginative worlds were being traversed. Lewis’s playing in this movement was fiery, wonderfully sonorous and intense, bringing out the music’s strangeness and ambivalence, not least in its mysterious conclusion. Similarly in the Adagio, the solemn, unhurried, hymn-like Rondo theme was juxtaposed with music of a more disquieting kind. It is the finale, though, that seals this sonata’s nature. David Truslove, the always excellent annotator of Turner Sims concerts, wrote of its galloping tarantella rhythm appearing to bring a ray of optimism: yet in Lewis’s dramatic (and fast) performance I heard the rhythm as frenzied, obsessive, just under control – not quite a ride to the abyss, perhaps, but something from which the music can never escape. There are respites, but Lewis’s performance left an impression of enormous and baleful power.

So much so that it took me most of the first movement of the A major sonata to recover: after D958 it sounded almost bland. Perhaps Radcliffe was right about the consequences of playing the sonatas in succession. Yet my companion’s experience was the reverse: D958 passed him by, and he only began to engage with the music of D959. Of course, Lewis’s playing was not bland at all: it was beautifully poised, and powerful when it needed to be.

In the desolation of its opening, the rising panic of its central section, its brief excursion into the major before the chill returns, the Andantino is so bleak that it seems like an intruder: it is apt to inscribe itself in the imagination as a thing by itself, not as a part of a larger design. Lewis left a long silence before embarking on the playful Scherzo, underlining the fact that these two movements are from two different worlds: both of them Schubert’s. It is tempting to say that in Schubert’s music – as often in our own experience – things tend to coexist rather than to resolve.

Schubert can always wash away the angst, at least for the time being, with a beautiful melody: in Lewis’s hands the opening of the final Rondo was like balm. His playing of this lovely movement was captivating – sometimes gently, sometimes clamorously so, with a powerful left hand. As he came off the last note he looked very tired: the interval was as necessary for us as for him (and for the piano tuner).

With the B-flat minor sonata D960 we seemed to have reached a calm plateau. The low left-hand trills that shadow the noble main theme did not, in Lewis’s hands, sound overtly threatening: Schubert seemed to be saying that in our human experience we can’t have the one without the other. This sublime twenty-minute movement – increasingly characterised, in Truslove’s words, by resignation rather than radiance – seemed to pass in no time at all: or, rather, to exist outside of time altogether.

The slow, sad music of the Andante sostenuto did not break the spell: nor, perhaps more surprisingly, did the light, fleet-fingered Scherzo, with its minor-key middle section. Schubert seems to have an instinct for proportion. The lightness was still there in the finale, for all the heft of its stormier sections: though the G with which it opens, and which tolls at intervals through the movement, sounded slightly sinister to me – not quite a ghost at the feast, but like something slightly troubling in the corner of one’s eye.

It was clear at the concert’s end that we had witnessed something extraordinary. When I reviewed the second instalment of Paul Lewis’s Schubert survey here at the Turner Sims, I implied that I found him rather detached, treating us as a warm-up for the Wigmore Hall: I take all that back, and I am still kicking myself for missing the third instalment (with the wonderful G major sonata D894).

I have read that these three final sonatas used to be regarded as a falling-off from the true zenith of Schubert’s works for piano, the much-loved Impromptus D899 and D935. Those with long memories may remember Alfred Brendel at the Turner Sims in 1997 prefacing the B-flat minor D960 with an early sonata (D537) and the Impromptu D935. I found this concert given by Paul Lewis a more complete and compelling experience than Brendel’s (who could sometimes sound drily didactic): Lewis’s courage in performing the last sonatas together paid off, and his playing was outstanding in its sensitivity and in its power.

At the end of his study of these three sonatas, Philip Radcliffe writes of ‘the gradual increase of serenity from each work to the next’: and of ‘their essential intimacy, sometimes combined with an almost limitless sense of space’. A country of the imagination very different from Beethoven’s; to which, for me, Paul Lewis has opened the door.

Chris Kettle

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