Acclaimed for his previous performances of Schubert at the Melbourne Recital Centre, international pianist Paul Lewis opened the International Classics 2023 series with two recitals devoted to Schubert’s piano sonatas. The Melbourne Recital Centre’s CEO, Euan Murdoch, introduced the second concert by obliquely invoking Schnabel’s self-reflective words that Schnabel played the notes no better than most pianists, but silence “that is where the art lies”.
In this Schubert recital Lewis gave commanding and highly personalised performances of three Schubert sonatas, leaving his audience in no doubt that he is probably the most virtuosic interpreter of Schubert today. Lewis is also insightful about silence.
The recital opened with the two complete movements from Schubert’s C major unfinished Reliquie sonata in C major/minor composed in 1825, three years before his death. Lewis played the muted opening six-note motive and its answer with a spell-binding pianissimo and chordal voicing that was a hallmark of his interpretations. As this rhythmic motive developed sonically in the first movement to heroic proportions, amidst an unpredictable harmonic scheme, Lewis maintained a taut control that brought an architectural logic to Schubert’s improvisatory development. Lewis’ articulation of Schubert’s likely references to the “fate” motive from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony were more understated than on his recording, as was the fascinating false recapitulation of the opening theme in B major, precipitating the real recapitulation. However, this evidences that Lewis’ interpretations are constantly changing.
In the second movement’s darkly introspective C minor theme the silences were intrinsically bound into the theme’s poignant expression, reflecting fully the poet’s lost soul in Schubert’s Winter’s Journey song cycle. Lewis drew a clear distinction here between Schubert’s C minor moods and Beethoven’s cathartic C minor moods where extreme turbulence is rarely without hope. Schubert’s ingenious combination of the C minor theme with the lyrical second theme was finely blended with contrapuntal interplay.
In the three-movement A major Sonata of 1819, the first and third movements were played with a more measured tempo than often heard. This allowed the warmth of Schubert’s expansive melodic lines and rapid dialogue between the treble and bass voices to breathe easily in the first movement. The chordal and octave climaxes in this movement were often played with a rare agogic emphasis, lengthening important notes, and maintained an inflective dimension to the dramatic contrasts.
The suspensions in the Andante second movement’s main theme were sounded with greater stress than in Lewis’ recorded performances, while an unsentimental flowing delivery in the wistful treble melodies kept this movement within its parameters of an intermezzo. Thought-provoking also was Lewis’ drawing on 19th century expressive pianistic techniques by adding arpeggiation and intentionally sounding the two hands at different times.
The unhurried tempo in the final movement drew out a rustic swagger in the characteristic dotted rhythmic figures and allowed time for an artful rubato in the semiquaver figuration. The performance of this whole sonata revealed an individual and provoking approach.
After interval, Lewis performed the great A minor Sonata also composed in 1825. This first movement contains some of Schubert’s most tumultuous piano writing, and Lewis responded with a huge dynamic range and rhythmic propulsion. The sonata abounds in disparate themes and thematic subplots, but Lewis held them together with a bold rigour that allowed the listener to follow a complex ever changing narrative. The drone bass, similar to Schubert’s Der Leiermann (The Hurdy-Gurdy Man) and clouded in a hushed dynamic within the central development, was especially effective. The movement’s coda swelled with an impressive resonance but the final fortissimo phrase was played with a percussive attack that some people could find perplexing to reconcile with Schubert’s music or a high-level orchestral performance. Schnabel commended not only silence but quality of tone.
In the second movement the structural unity in Lewis’ interpretation was uplifting as the theme emerged warmly from the middle voice at the opening into a kaleidoscope of five variations. The character of each variation, whether string trio texture, Ländler dance idioms or virtuoso embellishment was distinctively wrought, not to mention Lewis’ portato and legato delivery reflecting an actor’s rhetorical pleading and lyricism in the final variation. Occasionally one questioned why every repeat was necessary unless played with a noticeable contrast, but the performance was still undeniably captivating.
Following the scherzo third movement (whose midsection evoked a timeless eloquence) Lewis thrust headlong into the moto perpetuo finale dispatching it with bravura and giving no quarter to Schubert’s thankless leaps. The coda’s wild gypsy rhythms and climactic accelerando were thrown off with a dazzling brilliance.
An encore, Schubert’s Moment Musicaux No. 6, left the audience enraptured in silent awe as Lewis’ sensitivity, intimacy and subtle colorations of Schubert’s vocal style bordered on the transcendental.
Anthony Halliday reviewed the recital given by Paul Lewis as part of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s International Classics 2023 at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, on February 7, 2023.