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.