Lewis’s compelling Schubert series continues with Impromptus and sonata rarity

Mon May 23, 2011 at 9:03 am

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Paul Lewis

For the second installment of his ongoing Schubert cycle, Paul Lewis presented one of the composer’s most infrequently heard sonatas as well as the first set of his popular Impromptus Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

As with the opening program of the series, Lewis’s technical polish and sympathy in this repertoire were unassailable. Yet even more than in February’s recital, there was a fluency and an idiomatic rightness about his playing, which was all the more engaging for its understatement and refusal to play to the galleries.

Lewis led off with the Twelve Waltzes, D.145. Written in part to capitalize on the popularity of the form during the Congress of Vienna, these brief miniatures make a surprisingly successful integral suite, with no keys repeated consecutively. Lewis underscored the harmonic variety in vital playing that brought out the dance rhythms while maintaing an essential ballroom elegance. The pianist assayed the hand-crossing complexities with easy dexterity while bringing due introspection to the more inward waltzes.

That ability to maintain a skillful equilibrium between contrasting expressions was even more manifest in the Four Impromptus, D. 899. These tone poems are among Schubert’s greatest keyboard achievements, exploring a striking array of emotions within a single unified movement.

Lewis charted the course of the bardic Impromptu No. 1 in C minor masterfully, moving from the self-satisfied swagger of the march-like main theme to the darker and more malevolent landscape, the pianist building the insistent left-hand counterpoint into a terrifying maelstrom. The cascading triplets of the ensuing E-major Impromptu were tossed off with even articulation and assurance.

Lewis’s finely detailed rendering of the Impromptu in G flat proved one of the highlights of the afternoon with a poised, expressive yet unsentimental rendering of the lyrical main theme.

Schubert’s still-obscure Hungarian Melody made a fine prelude to the sonata, with Lewis here too bringing out the dance-like syncopation as well as the Magyar flavor.

The Sonata in G major, D.894 is the most rarely performed of all Schubert’s late sonatas — in part due to its omission from the early Schubert editions but also likely due to its more equivocal moods, with the music ranging not quite as widely or as deeply as, say, the B-flat major sonata’s unblinking gaze into the abyss.

Yet this is by no means second-best Schubert, but a challenging work that requires a musician of genuine stature to bring it off successfully, and Lewis made a strongly compelling case.  The songful, even wistful opening theme begins the work on a deceptively simple note, before the music takes on a grim urgency with Lewis building the development to an intense outburst of desperation before working its way to a kind of uneasy acceptance.

Likewise, the ensuing Andante segues from a lilting main theme into an agitated middle section, put across with fire and dramatic edge by the pianist. There is more a sense of the Austrian countryside in the Menuetto than the Viennese ballroom, and here Lewis brought a touching child-like delicacy to the contrasting trio.

After the sturm und drang, the sonata closes in optimistic fashion with only fleeting shadows interrupting the gamboling cheer of the repeated-note main theme’s progress.

Lewis made such an eloquent case for this work that one wondered why it has been so relatively neglected.  The pianist has an artful way making all the elements sound organically as part of the cohesive structure without undue italicizing or sentiment. The coda was especially inspired, the music slowing down and restating the main theme with a graceful inevitability that felt just right.

Paul Lewis’s Schubert cycle continues October  16 with the Four Impromptus, D.935, Six moments musicaux and the Fantasy in C major. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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One Response to “Lewis’s compelling Schubert series continues with Impromptus and sonata rarity”

  1. Posted May 23, 2011 at 10:29 am by Sharon Feddersen

    I thought this concert was sheer perfection.

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