Superb Schubert from Paul Lewis

Paul Lewis at Birmingham Town Hall ★★★★★

A chronological survey of Beethoven’s piano sonatas makes sense. A similar Schubert traversal would not work: the early recitals would be relatively lightweight while the later ones would be masterpiece-heavy. Paul Lewis has wisely opted for a carefully curated series with recitals full of interesting contrasts, surprising affinities and a variety of keys.

In the third of the series Lewis started with Schubert’s first completed Sonata, No 4 in A minor D537 from 1817. The 20-year-old Schubert had abandoned the drudgery of teaching at his father’s school and moved into the luxurious home of his louche friend Franz von Schober. His 250 lieder showed his talent but was determined to make his mark with piano works, vital for success in Vienna. He lacked the technique to emulate Mozart and Beethoven’s composer-cum-virtuouso path so aimed at the lucrative domestic music-making market where every respectable bourgeois home had a piano. Genius will out and Schubert’s imagination means that there’s nothing merely functional or composing-by-numbers about No.4. Lewis exploited its neo-romantic fantasy – its unexpectedly fiery opening – and his expectation defyingly remote and textbook “wrong” modulations and Lewis had fun with these “How did we get here?” moments. Many a dainty fraülein’s fingers must have played the second movement’s instantly catchy song-like melody.

The Sonata No 9 in B major D575 was written only seven months later but right from the start – Lewis’s crisply played assertive military style opening rhythms – we can sense the advance and freedom in Schubert’s thought. Lewis is a master of subtlety but has reserves of power too so that he unleashed a real shock in the slow movement as the minor-mode switch erupted into violence, assuaged later by the bonhomie of the third movement trio’s amiable ländler. Sonata No 18 in G major D894 is from 1826, two years before Schubert’s untimely death, and so one of his late masterpieces written on an epic scale. The opening movement, with Lewis absolutely “molto moderato” and “cantabile” was serenely time-suspending. It made the one moment of violence – the only triple forte indication in Schubert’s piano music – even more telling. This sonata crowned Lewis’s recital and if anyone doubted that it wasn’t worth every second let me quote András Schiff: “Let us trust Schubert: his works are not a second too long, but perhaps certain people’s patience is too short.”

Norman Stinchcombe

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