S&H Recital review


Schubert, Piano Sonatas No. 7 in E flat major D568; No. 14 in A minor D784; No. 17 in D major D850: Paul Lewis, Wigmore Hall, Saturday October 6th. (M.E.)

According to Schubert's friend Albert Stadler, the composer had "A beautiful touch, a steady hand, clear and clean playing full of spirit and feeling. He still belonged to the old school of good pianists, in which the fingers didn't attack the poor keys aggressively." Those remarks might equally well be applied to the young British pianist Paul Lewis, who embarked upon his Schubert Sonata series with this superb recital, heard with rapt attention by a packed house.

These sonatas, with their poetic language and melodic structure, are closely related to Schubert's songs, and it was one of the many strengths of this performance that Lewis brought out this relationship, with his cantabile style of playing and his lovely, unforced phrasing. He conveyed that characteristic Schubertian sense of introspection whilst also relishing the more extrovert passages such as those inspired by Laendler and other dances.

In a memorable essay about Fischer-Dieskau, Gerald Moore once wrote that what set the baritone apart from every other singer was Rhythm - "This is the life-blood of music and he is the master of it." We come back to that song connection again, since one of the great skills of this younger master is the way in which he recognises the inherent rhythmic coherence of each piece; one is never dismayed by the "heavenly length" of performances in which the pianist has so clearly mapped out for us the rhythmic pattern upon which each movement is based. This was especially true of the E flat major D568, with its song-like Andante and lilting minuet.

The D major sonata, D850, is perhaps the most misunderstood of Schubert's piano works, in the sense that it is frequently played as an extrovert tour de force, and the relationship with both "Die Schoene Muellerin" and "Winterreise" is forgotten. Lewis understood perfectly that this wonderful sonata is built upon Schubert's experience of the natural world, just as strongly as are those great cycles (it was written at Bad Gastein in 1825, surrounded by a romantic countryside of mountains and rushing brooks) and he brought out superbly those important contrasts between the birdsong-like variations of the second movement and the more brooding, bleak elements of the first. The most remarkable feature of the Laendler - based Scherzo and the delicate, sighing Rondo was the use Lewis made of Schubert's silences; those crucial rests are so frequently fluffed in performance, either by the pianist's reluctance to give them their full weight or by one stray cougher who seizes upon them as the ideal moment to make his presence felt, but here they were an integral, and most moving, part of the whole.

Wilhelm Kempff was sometimes criticised for emphasising the poetry of these sonatas at the expense of their drama; this is not a criticism which could ever be directed at Paul Lewis, yet Lewis is still very much a pianist in Kempff's mould, and there could hardly be any higher praise; the other recitals in the series, on December 2nd, March 7th and May 5th, are most warmly recommended.

Melanie Eskenazi

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