Lewis’s Schubert cycle to reach summit with three final sonatas

Wed Feb 27, 2013 at 3:43 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Paul Lewis will perform Schubert’s final three sonatas Sunday at Symphony Center.

Paul Lewis did not enjoy prodigy-like acclaim as a young musician. Yet perhaps it is his relatively late start and steady, thoughtful approach that has paid dividends over the longer term, leading the British pianist to his current reputation as one of the finest keyboard artists of our day.

Known for his searching and expressive playing, Lewis strives to bring a fresh approach to well-known repertoire even after repeated performances. “How do I apply what I learn for the next time? It’s always a fluid situation,” Lewis said in a phone conversation from his home outside London.

On Sunday afternoon Lewis will complete his three-season Chicago series of Schubert piano works with the composer’s final three sonatas—the summit of Schubert’s works in the genre.

“I’ve been drawn to Schubert for a long time,” said Lewis, 40, who has been hailed as one of the top Beethoven interpreters of his generation for his recordings of the complete piano sonatas and Diabelli Variations on harmonia mundi.

More recently he has embarked on an extended exploration of Schubert, having performed and recorded two of the song cycles and smaller piano works.

In 2011, he moved in a new direction when he kicked off a more in-depth program of Schubert’s piano sonatas, a sweeping two-year journey into the prolific composer’s music that has resulted in several international recitals, particularly his extended Schubert series in London and Chicago.

His recent harmonia mundi recordings of the composer’s sonatas grew out of this cycle and reflect the pianist’s particular interest in the last six years of Schubert’s life.

Schubert finished these sonatas at roughly the same time—late September of 1828, merely weeks before his death from syphilis at age 31. Nineteenth-century critics did not think highly of the works and characterized them as evidence of Schubert’s waning creative powers, but now these sonatas are seen as the culmination of the composer’s musical thinking.

The three sonatas, for starters, offer some unique technical challenges. Schubert’s piano writing is symphonic in conception, comprising thick chordal passages and difficult leaps, which make the works difficult to perform.

But the greatest challenge remain in the expression. “You just have to be honest about it,” says Lewis. “There are infinite numbers of ways that these works can be interpreted. You have to be open-minded and try to approach them in a fresh and individual way as much as you can.”

Cast in four movements, each of the late sonatas contains passages of lyrical beauty and joyful energy that mix with Beethovenian drama and power. “It seems he intended this triptych to be a set,” says Lewis of Schubert. “There’s a real progression to these sonatas [and] they have a logic to them.”

The C minor sonata possesses darkness and anguish, while the A major contains “more of a feeling of acceptance, almost saying goodbye,” says the pianist. And the B-flat sonata “goes beyond all of this trouble and upheaval—it’s almost like an answer.”

Lewis’s interpretive approach to the works has evolved over the years with each performance, the pianist giving these deep and complex works the time to age and ferment like a fine wine.

“There are things you cannot learn about this music until you play it in public,” he said. “The sounds, color, silences, and timing—there’s something alive about this music in a [concert] situation.”

The Liverpool-born musician was brought up in a non-musical family, but he developed a passionate interest in music as a child after listening repeatedly to recordings of the Viennese Classical masters at the local public library. After some early lessons on the cello, Lewis moved to the piano and as a teenager went on to hone his skills at Manchester’s Chetham’s School of Music. He later studied at the Guildhall School of Music in London, and counts Alfred Brendel—a celebrated Schubertian—among his teachers.

Lewis made his Boston debut last month in these same works, earning a glowing notice from Boston Classical Review.  He returned to the UK for Schubert performances in Cardiff and Malvern before heading to Japan, Australia, and Europe. After Sunday’s Chciago performance, he will take his Schubert to Washington D.C. and New Haven.

When he’s not touring, Lewis and his wife, Norwegian cellist Bjørg Lewis of the Vertavo String Quartet, run what he calls “a new diversion,” the Midsummer Music chamber festival held outside of London. The two also are kept busy raising their three young children, who already show an interest in music, Lewis said.

As he wraps up his Schubert cycle, Lewis looks forward to other projects. He will perform Brahms’ D minor Piano Concerto for the first time at the Amersham Festival (UK) in late March. And in subsequent recitals, he plans to tackle Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition as well as works by Busoni, and a judicious selection of works by Ligeti and Kurtag.

“I always try to keep my mind open and to combine (new) works with more established repertoire,” Lewis said. “You have to play music you’re convinced by.”

Paul Lewis will perform Schubert’s piano sonatas in C minor (D. 958), A major (D. 959), and B-flat major (D. 960) 3 p.m. Sunday at Symphony Center. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

Aaron Keebaugh has taught music history at North Shore Community College, Santa Fe College, and the University of Florida, where he earned his Ph.D. in musicology. He presently writes for Boston Classical Review and the Revere Advocate and lives in Salem, Massachusetts. 

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