Paul Lewis’s Schubert journey comes to a powerful close

Mon Mar 04, 2013 at 10:29 am

By Gerald Fisher

Paul Lewis performed Schubert’s final three sonatas Sunday afternoon at Symphony Center.

The closing installment of Paul Lewis’s two-year traversal of the late piano music of Schubert came to its culmination Sunday at Symphony Center, where a large audience enthusiastically cheered the final notes of the last completed piano music produced by the mortally ill composer.

The last three Piano Sonatas (D. 958, 959 and 960) are great, sprawling epics composed of emotional extremes and endless subtleties of structure and pianistic technique. The British keyboardist has immersed himself in these works to the extent that the music seems to flow out of him effortlessly, as manifest in a poised and controlled execution that easily handles the formidable challenges posed by each piece.

It is not often that we get to hear all three together, partly because they are so exacting on performer and audience, and partly because they make for a long recital. The sonatas have had a mixed reception over the years, only recently being ranked among Schubert’s best works, and still generating contradictory reactions to their long stretches of note-spinning, and movements that don’t seem to want to end.

But these works are just as Schubert wanted, and need to be approached as completely realized individual pieces and a trilogy that repays intense concentration and repeated hearings. They also contain music which is supremely lyrical and moving.

The first sonata, D. 958 in C minor, opens with a grand flourish but soon melts into more song-like themes while retaining a strong forward impulse. The Adagio displays a tenderness that Lewis is particularly sensitive to here as elsewhere. The final Allegro of this Sonata is a rapid-fire gallop which looks ahead to some of the more kinetic parts of the music to come. Lewis was faultless in his technique throughout the work.

D.959 opens more reflectively, and goes on to many other moods, at times reminiscent of Schubert the songwriter, at other times the symphonist. But in Lewis’ performance the lyrical voice always prevails. The Andantino movement starts mildly but builds to a fierce and jagged thunderstorm which again subsides into song-like gentleness and silence. Lewis’s slight frame is capable of a surprising amounts of power when needed.

Some minor problems with the piano’s tuning were worked out during the intermission, and Lewis returned with the Sonata No. 21, D. 959, which is the apex of this trilogy and of Schubert’s piano music.

The portentous opening theme is instantly gripping, and has been handled as a flowing brook by Kempff and as an excruciatingly slow funeral march by Richter. Lewis takes a middle ground and lets the music create its own enigmatic ambience. The Allegro vivace con delicatezza he tossed of at warp speed and cleanly. Good humor prevailed through the final Allegro right through to the clangorous conclusion which brought the house down.

Posted in Performances

Leave a Comment