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Cheltenham Festival 2008 (7): Music by Schubert. Paul Lewis (piano); Allan Clayton (tenor) Pittville Pump Room 17. 7.2008 (JQ)


Franz Schubert:

Piano Sonata in G D894

Die Schöne Müllerin D795

With the end of this year’s Festival approaching, Meurig Bowen, the Festival Director, had the inspired idea to programme on consecutive days Schubert’s two great Müller song cycles and the posthumous collection, Schwanengesang. To add extra interest a different singer was invited to present each recital, though this one and the Saturday morning performance of Winterreise had a common thread in that on both occasions the accompanist was to be the outstanding young British pianist Paul Lewis.

Lewis has been a welcome guest at the Festival in each of the last two years, bringing with him programmes form his Beethoven sonata cycle. I had the good fortune to review both his 2006 and 2007 recitals and was deeply impressed on each occasion. Before he embarked on his Beethoven performances – and CD recordings – he established a considerable reputation for himself as an exponent of Schubert’s solo piano music so the opportunity to hear him as lieder accompanist was enticing.

As an added bonus, as it were, he opened this particular programme in his more familiar role as solo recitalist, giving us a performance of the G major sonata D894. This was composed in 1824, the year after Die Schöne Müllerin. As Anthony Burton pointed out perceptively in his programme note, this sonata “stands in relation to [Schubert’s] last three sonatas as Mozart’s ‘Prague’ symphony does to his final symphonic triptych, standing apart but nonetheless on the same exalted level of achievement.”  The truth of that comment was made readily apparent by Lewis’s reading of the sonata’s first movement. The lovely 12/8 theme was unfolded with grace but one sensed an inner strength also both in the music and in the playing. In Paul Lewis’s hands Schubert’s music flowed with ease and a seeming inevitability. Although lyrical grace was much in evidence there was also steel in his fingers when necessary. Listening to this fine account I felt that the movement possesses sufficient breadth to be ranked along with those last three sonata masterpieces.

Lewis also gave a beautifully nuanced performance of the Andante. In the third movement I particularly relished the trio, which I thought was delightfully paced with a most understanding and stylish use of rubato. The finale was infectiously lively. Here Lewis played with energy and imagination at all times and, indeed, the music often sounded positively carefree. But after the bustle of the substantive part of the movement the thoughtful, quiet ending comes as something of a surprise. It takes the work – and us – back full circle to the mood in which the sonata began. This was a consummately skilful performance of the sonata by a pianist who, surely, must now be regarded as ranking among the leading Schubert pianists of the day.

Allan Clayton is a former Choral Scholar of St. John’s College, Cambridge and has also studied at the Royal Academy of Music. Last year he became one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation artists (this concert was recorded for future transmission on Radio 3.) He has already acquired a good deal of operatic experience, and is making his Glyndebourne debut this season as Albert Herring. His voice is essentially a light one, at least at this stage in his career. I must admit that I was a little surprised to see that he has already essayed the title roles in Peter Grimes and The Dream of Gerontius. On the evidence of what I heard in this recital I do hope he is not pushing his voice too far too fast by taking on roles that are too heavy for his present vocal resources.

One hears Die Schöne Müllerin sung by basses and baritones and, like many other people, I suspect, I first heard it sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. However, I’ve come to have a strong preference for hearing it sung by a tenor, for the high voice seems best to suit Schubert’s melodies and the concept of the love-lorn youth. I thought Clayton was, in many ways, ideally equipped for these songs. His voice is light and flexible and he impressed me especially when singing quietly in alt. (The next evening, talking to other people who, it turned out, had also been at this recital, I was interested to find that this same quality had resonated with them.) On the other hand there were times when the voice acquired a certain harshness of tone. This occurred when he was singing loudly and with dramatic force, such as in ‘Mein!’

However, such instances were fairly rare and there was far more to admire on the positive side of the ledger. Right from the outset, in ‘Das Wandern’, Clayton, urged on by Lewis’s propulsive accompaniment, impressed with his clear, forward tone, which was well projected. His words were clear and the German pronunciation sounded to be fully satisfactory. In ‘Danksagung an den Bach’ we got the first significant demonstration of Clayton’s ability to spin a line and of his excellent quiet head voice.  Similar qualities were on show again in ‘Der Neugierige’, where I particularly admired the sense of stillness that was evident at the start of the third stanza and, indeed, throughout that verse. Perhaps ‘Ungeduld’ was taken just a shade too swiftly to allow Clayton to articulate fully the tricky vocal line but his cries of “Dein ist mein Herz” had a thrilling ring.

As the cycle progressed and the young man changes from the eager, optimistic suitor to the would-be lover whose hopes have been dashed, Clayton responded with singing of greater intensity. The words of ‘Der Jäger’ were spat out with almost Mime-like force and it was a good decision to go straight on into ‘Eifersucht und Stolz’ with scarcely a perceptible break. In this song the emotional temperature rose still further. Clayton conveyed admirably the anger and anguish of ‘Die böse Farbe’, particularly in the third stanza. In the following song, ‘Trockne Blumen’, I thought his quiet, subdued singing was most effective, with some wonderful soft high notes for us to savour.

The last two songs were splendidly realised. Clayton adopted a light, poignant tone for the Miller’s words in ‘Der Müller und der Bach’ and then he and Lewis brought off the miraculous change into major key warmth when the Brook replies. The urgency in the last two stanzas of the poem was very affecting. Then, finally, we heard ‘Das Baches Wiegenlied’. The heavenly melancholy of this setting was touchingly realised by both performers, bringing the cycle to a moving conclusion.

I’m sure Allan Clayton would be the first to acknowledge that he benefited enormously from the presence of a master Schubertian at the piano. Not all concert pianists can make the transition to the very different – and exacting – demands of recital accompaniment but on this evidence Paul Lewis is thoroughly at home in the role. There were countless felicities to admire in his playing. The accompaniment to ‘Pause’ showed marvellous feeling. Lewis’s touch was admirable and the piano part that underpins the last two lines in particular was beautifully placed. Later, in ‘Die Liebe Farbe’ he gave an object lesson in how to make an accompaniment based round repeated notes sound alive and interesting. I loved also his perfectly voiced and placed chords in ‘Trockne Blumen’. I could cite many more examples but these will suffice. Crucially, Lewis was “with” his singer at all times and one had the sense of a real partnership throughout the course of the twenty songs.

This was quite an urgent reading of Die Schöne Müllerin and the urgency was apparent whether the music was fast or slow, quiet or loud. By that I don’t mean for one moment to imply that the moments of repose were glossed over, for that was most definitely not the case. But the performers were ever alive to the dramatic possibilities within the music and at all times the reading had purpose and conviction. Allan Clayton was completely believable as the youth and, for me, he demonstrated why this work is best suited to a tenor – and to a young tenor at that. He is near the start of his career and I have no doubt that his interpretation of this cycle will deepen as the years go by. But this performance was fresh, ardent and idiomatic and this was a significant achievement. His youthful energy and fine voice coupled with the experience of Paul Lewis, already wise beyond his years in the ways of Schubert performance, made for a rather special experience that, rightly, was accorded an enthusiastic reception by the Cheltenham audience.

John Quinn

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