Paul Lewis, piano: The Last Three Schubert Sonatas - Chan Centre, October 23, 2012

Paul Lewis, piano

Paul Lewis, piano

About 20 years ago, I happened to run into pianist Alfred Brendel accidentally while walking in Hampstead Heath, London.  Meeting a complete stranger in a park is of course not exactly what a celebrated artist wants.  However, I somehow managed to thank him for his enterprising Carnegie Hall concert of the last three Schubert sonatas that I had enjoyed a year or so earlier. Characteristically, he responded: ‘Oh, really. I do think it makes so much good sense to play those sonatas together -- though of course you don’t have to.’  Luckily, our musical discussion was able to carry on to the front door of his home.  Brendel’s student, Paul Lewis, clearly sees matters the same way, and carries on this performing tradition in his current global tour.

Playing these last sonatas together does provide fascinating insights in to Schubert’s (often morbid) last days but it is very demanding on the performer.  Sonata No. 19 (in C-minor) may be relatively tight and compact but the other two (No. 20 in A major, and the greatest of them all, No. 21 in B-flat major) are long journeys by any standards, and it would be an achievement to tackle only one of them in a concert.  As shown in classic performances by Brendel himself, Wilhelm Kempff, Sviatoslav Richter and Sir Clifford Curzon, both require the ability to vary texture and expression endlessly to bring out the beauty in Schubert’s private world, while wedding dramatic demands with the composer’s overriding lyrical flow.  Playing all these sonatas together requires complete involvement over what amounts to 12 very individual movements!  This can hardly be a relaxing task, even though the interpreter must always convey the ease in Schubert’s music itself.  The problem is that, when the artist knows he must get through all these pieces, he can hardly afford to savour each individual movement the way he might otherwise.  Even in Brendel’s concert years ago, I did feel he rushed through some movements pretty quickly – and this is a pianist who never hurries!  The same seemed to be true for Paul Lewis’s traversal.

Let me say from the outset that, given the Beethoven and Schumann that Paul Lewis has brought to the VRS in years past, and the acclaim already received for his current Schubert recordings on Harmonia Mundi, we could not be in safer hands here.  What is clear however is that the pianist did set a pretty brisk pace for opening C-minor Sonata, and was in many ways even faster for the great A-major work.   Lewis even chose to start the final movements of each sonata ‘attacca’ (without pause) which is unusual to say the least.  There is nothing wrong with speed as such but here it meant that some of the wonderful lyrical flow and charm of these works simply could not register.  While discipline and structural awareness were notably present, there was not much room to float a delicious soft phrase when needed, or to relax into Schubert’s quiet imaginative world where ’time stands still’.  Even the slow movements were moved on, not achieving as much repose as they might.  The model often seemed to be more Beethoven than Schubert; dramatic, articulate but often too unyielding to communicate the fragile nerve ends of the music.

Then, something interesting happened.  Perhaps from sheer exhaustion, about half way through the final movement of the A-major sonata, the pianist’s playing suddenly became quieter, less tense, and more fluid.  Phrases had more lyrical shape, and imitative passages started to answer each other in a more human dialogue.  This was the Schubert we had been waiting for!  Fortunately, the same feeling permeated the great B-flat major sonata after the intermission, the opening motif being floated out with exquisite sensitivity.  All trace of hurry was now gone, and we received a most probing account of this long first movement with subtle rhythmic flexibility and many quiet half-tones.  While the slow movement was still probably too forthright (compare how quiet and still Clifford Curzon is), the last movement was really wonderful, penetrating all the tensions in the writing and putting everything together with feeling, insight and power. 

So, this concert ended as quite a success after all.  Now…. if Paul Lewis just had the energy to go back and play the first two sonatas for us again!   As for the music, these sonatas unquestionably represent one of the peaks of all piano writing.

 © Geoffrey Newman 2012


Paul Lewis plays Schubert