Lewis delivers spell-binding artistry with late Schubert sonatas

January 13, 2013 at 2:54 pm

By David Wright

Paul Lewis performed Schubert’s final three sonatas Saturday night at Jordan Hall in his Boston debut. Photo: Jack Liebeck

Sprawling…incoherent…audience-unfriendly—these criticisms and more have historically been leveled at Franz Schubert’s late piano sonatas.  But any negative thoughts vanished on Saturday night as pianist Paul Lewis, in his Boston debut presented by Celebrity Series of Boston, held the audience at New England Conservatory’s Jordan Hall spellbound with nearly two hours of Schubert, Schubert, and more Schubert.

And not just any Schubert, but the highest peak in the range, the imposing trilogy of sonatas (D. 958, 959, and 960) that the composer wrote in the last few months of his short life.  Leisurely, discursive, pausing often to contemplate its next move, any one of these pieces would normally be considered a test of concentration for pianist and audience alike.

Yet under the English pianist’s expressive fingers, the program seemed to fly by, leaving listeners wanting more. In fact, Lewis’s omission of the first-movement repeats in the last two sonatas provoked not relief, but disappointment at not hearing how he would have interpreted them.

That was about the only disappointing thing in an evening of revelations, the foremost of which may have been that these works, composed in 1828 at the dawn of the Romantic era and made of the most diverse materials, can seem like character-piece cycles à la Schumann trapped in the body of a sonata.

Yet in diversity there is also unity, and, as with Beethoven’s final sonata trilogy, Opp. 109-111, each sonata has a character all its own, complementing the others.  (Of the two sets, the Beethoven is much more frequently heard as a cycle in recital, for reasons of stamina, if nothing else.)

Schubert’s Sonata in C minor, D. 958, is the only one of the three that could conceivably be called “concise,” clocking in at just under half an hour, and Lewis wasted no time getting at it, launching the forte opening bars almost before the welcoming applause had died down, then barreling through the first movement.  Here Schubert indicated no repeat, and Lewis heightened the sense of headlong momentum by blurring the fast figurations with pedal.

At this early point in the program, Lewis seemed intellectually acute but not much of a colorist at the piano, somewhat in the manner of his mentor, Alfred Brendel. The Adagio, however, brought out his fine sense of the piano’s sonorities in different registers.  Lewis voiced the chordal main theme beautifully, and differently, each time it returned.

All three sonatas have scherzos as their third movement, but the one in D. 958 is titled Menuetto, and Lewis took it at an easygoing pace, letting the music’s shifting moods flit and flicker, and getting just playful enough with the trio’s rather square phrases to warm them up.

In the volatile finale, thoughts of Schumann came up often as Lewis took all the fast turns with daring and ease.  Music seemed to shake out of his sleeves, even the sudden fortissimos, and one sensed that, even in Schubert’s most emphatic moments, there wouldn’t be a crude or harsh sound heard all evening.

The Sonata in A major, D. 959, is the warm, huggable beast of the three, bold and hearty at the outset and often melting into aching lyricism.  Its four movements follow the expressive arc of some of Beethoven’s early sonatas: big statement in the first movement, followed by a deeply expressive slow movement, comic relief in the scherzo, and finally opening out into a leisurely rondo with a pretty tune one can’t wait to hear again.

Lewis found a big, round piano tone to match this narrative, booming out the opening chords and octaves with gusto and imbuing the irresistible rondo theme with a golden glow.  The light and whimsical moments in between were always played on a curve, with intent, never squarely.  Lewis took note of Schubert’s constant shifts of harmonic color, and made emotional sense of each one.

In the wintry second movement, Lewis persistently stretched the second beat of the simple three-to-a-bar accompaniment, producing a dragging effect that could seem eloquent or mannered, depending on one’s taste.  (It didn’t help that, at pianissimo moments, one could clearly hear the hall’s doors to the street squeaking as they opened and closed.)

But there was nothing draggy about the blithe, weightless scherzo, with its dancing chords that amusingly parodied the sonata’s pompous opening bars.  Lewis started the humorous theme a little under tempo when it returned, and even made that old musical cliché sound like a fresh stroke of wit.

As to Lewis’s performance of the broad, relaxed rondo, the only complaint was that the Presto coda was a bit too relaxed, not crazy enough.  But the rest of it was richly characterized, especially the turbulent minor-key episode.  In the natural swell of his crescendos, Lewis made one aware that the term “volume” refers to space, not just loudness.

The Sonata in B-flat major, D. 960, seems at times to look beyond this world to the next.  In Lewis’s hushed rendering, the sonata’s simple yet utterly characteristic opening theme, punctuated by eerie soft trills and pauses, sounded like Schubert’s ghost walking.  The epic events that followed often tapered off into diminuendos, which Lewis managed beautifully, playing the softest note as clearly as all the others.

The icy landscape of the Andante sostenuto was painted in the kind of dark, deep piano tone that may have inspired Brahms’s early piano pieces, and later on Lewis didn’t shrink from an orchestral sound as the theme returned, harmonized in sonorous Brahmsian sixths.

In contrast, Lewis made the scherzo fly like the wind, leggierissimo—although even here, little eddies of rubato lent interest and shape to the music.  Barely pausing between movements, Lewis brought the music to a halt on a single held note in the middle of the keyboard, Schubert’s enigmatic signal for attention.  But attention for what?  For a rondo theme that starts far from the home key, and a movement compounded of light and clouds, tenderness and fury, whispers and roars.

Somehow, Lewis found the narrative thread in it all, and drew the listener along all the way to the exuberant Presto coda–which, coming at the end of this brave traversal of all three last sonatas, had the feeling of a mountaineer dashing the last few yards to the summit.

The next classical event for the Celebrity Series of Boston will be violinist Vilde Frang’s recital at Pickman Hall, Longy School of Music of Bard College, 8 p.m. January 23.  celebrityseries.com; 617-482-6661.

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One Response to “Lewis delivers spell-binding artistry with late Schubert sonatas”

  1. Posted Jan 16, 2013 at 6:59 pm by Anna Shlimovich

    What a thorough review, thank you! It was indeed a concert succeeding all expectations, it was amazing to hear such a performance live, not on a recording. My admiration for Maestro Lewis grew even further when learning his biography, it is extraordinary that he has attained such musical heights being from a humble background. Mahler’s life comes to mind…
    Our only disappointment was there he did not play any encores. But it was not a serious one 🙂
    How I wish him success in his global Winterreise with these three sonatas.

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