Superb Schubert from Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★★

In an interview about his Birmingham series of Schubert’s complete piano sonatas Paul Lewis described him as, “the most human of all composers.” By which he meant that as opposed to Beethoven’s sonatas – musical journeys carefully mapped out, destinations reached, problems resolved – Schubert can leave us, “with more questions than you started with.” Rather like our own lives in fact. That questing, questioning aspect of Schubert was a thread running through this recital. He’s a musical traveller who can never stay on the straight and narrow but prefers the scenic route, the interesting by-way – mirrored in his side-slipping key changes – and sometimes ends in a cul-de-sac, which is why there are so many unfinished works, fragments that ran out of road.

This is what happened in the Piano Sonata No 15 in C major, D840 with which Lewis opened the recital. Lewis played the first two movements which Schubert completed (as one would expect) although the programme notes listed four movements. An odd oversight – perhaps the annotator had in mind one of several completions made by other hands of the fragments Schubert left. Re-branded as “The Unanswered Question” Schubert could have had a hit on his hands, Lewis’s forensic examination of the second rondo movement was mightily impressive. With its mordant C minor tonality, the dramatic almost theatrical gestures, moments of ferocity and quiet resigned ending, it felt totally satisfying. Lewis made it an epic journey, not an aborted one. Schubert wrote it in parallel with the Piano Sonata No 16 in A minor, D845 which Lewis revealed as a foretaste of the massive awe-inspiring final sonatas. In his hands the second movement’s five variations were brightly individuated and the third movement’s trio showed that Schubert, and Lewis, could touch our hearts with the smallest well-aimed musical gesture; the bass notes (played cross-hands) which add unexpected poignancy to the high-lying melody. In between these works light-hearted Piano Sonata No 13 in A major, D664 was unadulterated pleasure, youthful joie-de-vivre without a cloud in the sky and Lewis at his most insouciant. Lewis’s encore was a subtle and mellifluous ‘Moments musicaux’ No.2 in A minor – six minutes of spiritual balm.

Norman Stinchcombe

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