Paul Lewis plays Schubert at Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata in C, D840 (Reliquie)
Drei Klavierstücke, D946
Piano Sonata in D, D850

Paul Lewis (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 22 March, 2011
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

On a presumably dark, almost certainly wintry night in Southampton in early February, Paul Lewis officially embarked on his massive, worldwide Schubert series, which will keep him and his air-miles busy into 2013. The series is called “Schubert and the Piano: 1822-28”, so it is definitely not a survey of the sonatas, but specifically the music from the last six years of Schubert’s life, with the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy as the starting point, from the time when he first knew that he had contracted syphilis.

Lewis’s eight programmes embrace eight sonatas, collections of Dances, Impromptus and Moments musicaux, and the three song-cycles. This is the first recital and has already done the rounds in the United States and various European and British cities before coming to London. It’s a hugely ambitious undertaking, so let’s hope that Lewis can keep inside the disarmingly eloquent, seemingly direct but bafflingly elusive bundle of sublime paradoxes that makes Schubert’s music so sustaining and full of life.

It became clear from the opening of the ‘Reliquie’ that Lewis was up for the fine balancing act between music written for piano and piano music written to propose bigger possibilities. He kept a firm, rather severe hand on the music’s potential for monumentalism and in the process made you even more aware how Schubert’s boldly non-classical approach to harmonic relationships opens doors onto unexpectedly spacious musical vistas, a bit like experiencing the interior of the Tardis. Schubert, especially in the late music, seemed to create space out of nothing, and Lewis got almost as near to this mysterious alchemy as Alfred Brendel, although the latter, interestingly, was more relaxed about it. This was also a performance of one of Schubert’s unfinished works, easily on a par with the ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, that steered away from presenting it as a satisfying whole, leaving instead possibilities hanging in the air.

The anonymously titled Three Piano Pieces don’t give a hint of their stature. Lewis didn’t spare on their Beethovenian largesse, but he could have been a bit more relaxed – some of the music is quite genial.

To evoke Beethoven again, the D major Sonata is Schubert’s ‘Eroica’ and ‘Hammerklavier’ rolled into one. Lewis exploded into the first movement, taking to heart the Vivace tempo instruction, but it was in the slow movement that he came into his own, in a finely spun performance of music that starts simply and quickly becomes increasingly layered, a sort of awfully big adventure that Lewis put to rest in his charmingly direct approach to the child-like finale.

I’ve occasionally found Lewis’s Beethoven a bit impersonal, but, apart from his intelligent musicianship, his feel for colour and lyricism, on the evidence of this recital, there was also that vital Schubert ingredient, a sense of wonder.

  • Recital repeated on Thursday 24 March at 7.30 p.m.

  • Wigmore Hall

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