RECORD OF THE MONTH
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Piano Sonata in D major, Op. 53 D.850 (1825) [38:38]
Piano Sonata in G major, Op. 78 D.894 (1826) [39:47]
Vier Impromptus op. 90, D.899 (1827) [27:18]
Piano Sonata in C major, D.840 Reliquie (1825) [25:29]
Drei Klavierstücke, D.946 (1828) [25:29]
Paul Lewis (piano)
rec. March and July 2011, Teldex Studio, Berlin
HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902115.16 [78:40 + 78:33]
One of the earliest recordings that Paul Lewis made was a fine coupling of Schubert’s last two sonatas, D.959 and D.960. That was back in 2002 (HMC 901800). Thereafter, he turned his attention, at least in the recording studio, to Beethoven, setting down a cycle of the sonatas that was widely praised – and rightly so – followed by a set of the piano concertos, which I admired very much (review). Now he seems to be returning to Schubert and in addition to partnering Mark Padmore in penetrating accounts of Die schöne Müllerin (review), Winterreise (review) and Schwanengesang (review) he has resumed his exploration of the solo piano music. He’s already released a pairing of two sonatas, D.784 and D.958, which I have not yet heard (HMA 1951755). Now here is a further generous helping of Schubert.
Three sonatas are offered. D.840, the so-called Reliquie is one of a number of significant scores that Schubert left tantalisingly incomplete – ones that “got away”. Had Schubert completed this C major sonata it might well have rivalled the last three great sonatas in terms of ambition and scale. As it is, what has come down to us is two movements of top-drawer Schubert. Lewis gives a commanding reading of I. It’s an ambitious movement and Lewis shows the stature and reach of the music. The dynamic range of his playing is most impressive, especially the hushed concentration that he brings to some of the quieter passages. In II he achieves a fine range of expression.
The other two sonatas are complete. In his booklet note Roman Hinke describes the material in the first movement of D.850 as “surprisingly boisterous and aggressive”. I’d agree readily with the first of those adjectives but I don’t feel “aggressive” is the mot juste – such a word could rarely be used of Schubert’s music. I think “assertive” would be more appropriate. Lewis gives a performance of brilliance: one which is also full of energy but which doesn’t overlook the subtle nuances. His playing in II is thoughtful and ideally paced. One little cameo detail in this movement caught my ear: between 7:31 and 7:46 there’s a pause followed by a short pp passage; the pause is expertly judged and the pp is exquisite – it’s all the result of scrupulous attention to detail yet it sounds completely natural. In III Lewis’s use of dynamic contrast is marvellous as is the ebb and flow he achieves in the trio. Schubert himself was fairly dismissive of the finale and, in truth, it’s not his most memorable movement but Lewis plays it with elegance. The grace with which he delivers the end of the movement is particularly noteworthy.
He’s just as successful in D.894. I love the seemingly instinctive use of rubato in the glorious chordal main theme of I. The entire performance of this movement is a wonderful experience. The playing is expressive and full of Schubertian give-and-take. However, it’s not simply a case of easy lyricism; Lewis imbues the climaxes with plenty of strength. The second movement is cast in A and B sections and this fine pianist brings suitable power to the B passages while the A sections are delivered with winning lyricism. The two following movements also impress, not least for the light and shade that Lewis imparts in the finale.
As substantial makeweights Lewis offers two favourite collections of smaller-scale pieces. D.899 is anything but a set of salon trifles. As is pointed out in the notes these are Romantic character pieces and Lewis treats them as such. He gives a strong account of the C minor Impromptu and captures the romantic fantasy of the E-flat piece. In the celebrated G-flat Impromptu – my own favourite – there’s a marvellously easy flow, the playing thoughtful and beautifully judged.
The first piece in D.946 opens with surging urgency but the central Andante is elevated and pensive in Lewis’s hands. Every time the opening material of the second piece returns he plays with a limpid grace. This piece, though less than twelve minutes long, encompasses a variety of moods and Lewis responds acutely to each one of them.
This well rounded recital, presented in good, clear sound, confirms the credentials of Paul Lewis as one of the leading pianists of his generation. I loved every minute. It’s technically excellent in execution and packed full of little insights which show how deeply Lewis has thought about the music. I don’t know if a complete Schubert sonata cycle is planned but I hope so. In the meantime this distinguished release demands the attention of lovers of piano music.
A distinguished release which confirms the credentials of Paul Lewis as one of the leading pianists of his generation.