I've really enjoyed Paul Lewis's Harmonia Mundi
recordings of Schubert's solo piano music, but his discography
is now becoming a little confusing. This brand-new release, 'The
Late Piano Sonatas' is partly brand-new, but the second CD is
in fact a re-release of one of Lewis's early recordings in the
series, both of the sonatas D 959 and D 960 having
appeared on HMC 901800 in 2003. This single disc is still available,
but from at least one outlet is currently more expensive than the 2
CD set at hand. That said, from the same outlet the MP3 download is
also more expensive than the actual discs of this new set – so
'go figure', as they say in Baltimore. Further snippets
on this subject can be found in the seventh Download
News of 2014. This semi-repackaging will be a frustration for those
who already have HMC 901800 since acquiring the new D 784 and
D 958 will mean duplication of D 959 and D 960.
CD 1 in this new set replaces another older Paul Lewis recording: HMN
911755, with D 784 and D 958 but in reverse order.
I've had a listen to this early 2000s version through online streaming
and there are some points of improvement – in general a deepening
of these building blocks in the newer recording, though Lewis's
view of these sonatas hasn't changed massively in the intervening
decade or so. Comparing these does however bring one to the conclusion
that a new D 960 at the very least would have helped the cause
of this package.
There is a slight difference in colour of sound between the two discs but no real difference in quality. CD 1 is a little closer and warmer in sound, the slight amount of extra space on CD 2 introducing a touch more acoustic ambience. There is certainly not much to choose in terms of impact in terms of the piano sound, which is excellent in both cases.
Paul Lewis is one of the best pianists I know for delivering both explosiveness of drama and the kind of melting expressiveness which draws you in, but without losing that inner core of strength which raises Schubert from genteel picturesqueness into an artist of granite stature. This is very much in evidence in the opening Allegro giusto, some passages of which Lewis rips into as if rising above a full imaginary symphony orchestra. The funereal nature of this music demands defiance, and Lewis delivers this in spades. The gorgeous central Andante is a minefield of repose and restlessness for Lewis, and if you are looking for supine resignation or reassurance then this won't be the celestial journey you are looking for. There is a fair bit of heavy breathing to put up with here, but with Lewis's intensity this somehow agrees with the interpretation. The slippery final movement races away while still being in keeping with Lewis's craggy view of Schubert's soundworld. The lyrical passages are genuinely sublime and the contrasts all the sharper as a result.
D 784 is a great favourite, but we're here mainly for the final trilogy, Schubert's remarkable creativity in his last year delivering some of the most remarkable piano music of his era, and indeed for all time. Lewis doesn't linger over-reverently in D 958, enjoying the fun parts of the first movement as well as pointing out those little corners of poignant regret and creating a melodramatic roller-coaster ride which keeps us gripped from beginning to end. The Adagio is beautifully sustained, the qualities of the instrument allowing for a feel a gear or so deeper than anything more typically song-like. Lewis's softness of touch in the quieter passages here is something to treasure, and the musical narrative takes us on a truly far-reaching journey. The Minuet is regarded as 'harmless' by Roman Hinke in the booklet notes, but with its quirky stops and gentle major-minor turbulence I would prefer to apply the Douglas Adams term 'mostly harmless'. Lewis certainly doesn't give it short shrift, understating all of those little surprises but creating an atmosphere of confiding wit in the process. The transition to the final Allegro is rightly made without a break, and the galloping ride is terrific – fun and frightening at the same time, the sense of edgy danger maintained through acid-sharp articulation and an ever-onward impetus only slightly restrained by the softer central section. Paul Lewis's voicing and layers of dynamic are also worth pointing out in this movement. Even when the notes are coming thick and fast you never have the feeling that the music is becoming heavy or overcrowded.
CD 2 has a long track record and, in its original form, already received plaudits from a wide variety of critical sources. All of the characteristics outlined in the summaries above apply to D 959 and D 960, and there is no real sense of disconnect between the most recent recordings and these, even with over a decade between them. It would have been nice to have Paul Lewis's present day interpretations, but we have to assume he is still 100% behind the recordings we have here, and you can be safe in the knowledge that these are still very high on the list of recommendations for these two great sonatas.
D 959 is conjured with all of that power we hear from the other sonatas, and there are also some magical moments in the opening Allegro where time seems to slow down. The tensions between dissonance and resolution are superbly moulded, with sculptural stretching and gravitational pulls and pushes which hold your attention while at the same time sounding entirely natural. The heartbreaking Andantino has plenty of song-like lyricism and shading of light and darkness, and becomes more beautiful the further you go with it. The sparkle of the Scherzo is superbly placed, with a sense of ballroom movement and elegance with fireworks aplenty. The hidden jewel in this sonata is of course the final Rondo Allegretto which is almost on the same scale as the first movement of D 960. As ever, a battle royal is played out between the sweetly lyrical theme of the opening and the turbulent dramas which ensue. Paul Lewis is the man to give us every facet of this fascinating music, with fantastic amounts of pianistic weight coming at us from the speakers midway into the movement while control and clarity are maintained throughout.
So to D 960 and the search for a 'perfect' recording of this sonata. Paul Lewis is terrific as ever, though there are some moments in the first movement where just a touch more poetry would have made this more of a winner. These are very minor points at moments of transition, but if you take for instance the passage at around 3:35 in the first movement I think he just misses a point at which the repose could be more significant. Further along it might be argued that some more space could be given here and there, though the transformation at 5:00 hits the mark perfectly. I could be picky about too many things and in the end you have to let go of an imagined nirvana and allow a musician their strengths, which with Paul Lewis are myriad. I have to agree with Brian Wilson's view that this interpretation “tries a little too hard” in places, and a more seasoned view would have been more than welcome. The Andante sostenuto is gorgeous, though even at over a minute longer than Barry Douglas I prefer it a little slower and more timeless. The Scherzo is another potent little number as in D 959, the sense of anxious 'fun' putting our nerves in just the right place for a final Allegro, ma non troppo which drives us downhill at a thrilling pace, once again revelling in Lewis's faultless sense of sonority and dynamic shaping. This is all truly excellent and by no means a low point in Paul Lewis's Schubert collection, but this is one piece for which the quest for an ideal performance must carry on, with Maria João Pires (see review) still coming closest in recent times.
Index: Schubert sonata D784 ~~ Sonatas D958-960