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S & H Recital Review

Schubert, Piano Sonatas No. 15 in C major (D840) No. 13 in A major (D664) No. 16 in A minor (D845)
Paul Lewis, Wigmore Hall, Sunday December 2nd (ME)


After his superb first recital in this four-part series in October, it was hardly surprising that there should be standing room only to hear Paul Lewis perform three more of Schubert's piano sonatas (and you could hardly move in the place without bumping into another eminent pianist). Lewis is a young man who is already fulfilling his promise; I would place him in a direct line of Schubert interpreters from Kempff to Lupu, since he possesses that rare combination of a cantabile style of playing with a ferocious technical mastery and, when required, a certain sense of ironic detachment.

He began with the dubiously named "Reliquie" written in the Spring of 1825, and left unfinished by the composer, with only two movements of striking beauty and pathos. Melodically, both movements recall the songs "Nachthelle" (the piano accompaniment to the lines "Die Nacht is heiter und ist rein") and "Am Fenster" (the lovely ascending phrase at "Durch's Lebensheiligtum.") Lewis imbued the piece with the kind of solemnity which characterises the greatest performances of Schubert's work, and he managed the little harmonic change in the slow movement in such a way as to almost suspend the audience's collective breath.

The A major Sonata (D664) was played with brilliance and sensitivity. This very popular work can seem overdone and stale to those who have heard it often, or rather suffered it at hands that are less than the greatest, but Lewis made it seem as though it had been composed for him. It has always surprised me that this work is often compared to the "Trout" quintet - composed at about the same time - since I do not see in it anything like the genial air of that work. To me, this is quintessential Schubert, in that it is deeply melancholy yet carries within it the spirit of remembered joys, and Lewis' playing conveyed this characteristic ambiguity, not only in the lyrical Andante but also in the virtuosic Allegro.

The afternoon's major work was the A minor Sonata, D845, given a searing performance which displayed Lewis' technical mastery to the full. It was described by an early critic as ".so free and individual in its limitless bounds, so boldly and at times so strangely inspired that it could not unjustifiably have been called a fantasy," and Lewis brought out that freedom, especially in the first movement. He also played the slow movement in such a way as to balance the many mood swings and conversational digressions of the piece, and his articulation during the lovely "Ländler" trio was masterly.

It would be difficult to ask more of any pianist than Lewis gives us; emotional maturity and depth, assured technical mastery, a sensitive and cantabile touch which is ideally suited to Schubert, and a platform manner that is neither too self-effacing nor over-histrionic. Any Schubert lover who has not yet booked for the next in the series (on March 7th) is most warmly recommended to do so, if it's still possible to get in, since on that occasion Lewis will give us the great G major (D894) which Schumann called the most perfect of Schubert's piano sonatas.

Melanie Eskenazi


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