Paul Lewis’ performance of Schubert’s final three piano sonatas on Tuesday at the Melbourne Recital Centre was a testament to Lewis’ place as one of the foremost interpreters of Schubert’s piano music today. Lewis has his own approach to interpreting Schubert’s piano music. His approach has a rugged virtuosity, deep sensitivity and insight, far removed from the Viennese sentimentality and portamento singing style of earlier Schubertians like Walter Klien and Ingrid Haebler.
Schubert’s last three sonatas, in C minor, A major and B flat major, were composed between Spring and Autumn in 1828, close to his death on 19 November that year. Performers and audiences alike associate the emotional expression in these works with the turmoil of the composer’s final illness. While these works are saturated with pathos and spiritual reflection, they also show an experimental improvisatory development juxtaposed with concentrated lyricism that attains greater expressive individuality than found in his earlier sonatas.
The principal theme of the C minor sonata’s first movement is reminiscent of Beethoven’s variations in C minor which contains a powerfully accented chromatic rise through five principal notes of the scale (C – G). More significant though is that Beethoven’s variations and Schubert’s sonata extend their themes one note higher to A flat. While Beethoven drops to a hushed dynamic in the lower register Schubert emphasises A flat as the pinnacle of the movement’s dramaturgical progress by lingering on A flat, firstly in the high treble and then through answering cascades falling to the lowest A flat in the bass. Lewis highlighted Schubert’s theme with gripping bravura and incisiveness, assuredly unifying the movement’s rapid key changes and persistent allusions to the theme’s chromaticism through forceful and muted gestures.
There is a striking semblance between the Adagio movement of the C minor sonata and the warm chorale theme of the Benedictus (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord) in Schubert’s Mass in E flat, also composed in the final months of the composer’s life. Lewis’ pacing of the sonata’s Adagio and luminous chord voicing in triple piano dynamics reflected the solemnity of the Benedictus.
In his book Musical thoughts and afterthoughts, Brendel compellingly makes the point that Beethoven’s sforzando markings (strongly accented) should not be played by stabbing at the key. Lewis’ rendering of Schubert’s recurring sforzando accents in the C minor sonata’s Adagio movementstrictly adhered to Brendel’s suggestion. Lewis’ sforzando articulation was sonorous without the harsh brittle results often heard in performances.
In the finale, Lewis drove the tarantella rhythms and tempestuous register changes alongside the second subject’s bell-like chiming with a persistent resolve. This unmistakably demonstrated how tempestuous Schubert’s late tarantella movements became compared to his early tarantella forays, as in the finale of the third symphony composed when he was 18 years old.
The Andantino second movement of the A major Sonata is one of most poignant movements in all Schubert’s music. Like the slow movement of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata, it is a lament set in F sharp minor with reiterated C sharps accompanying the theme evoking the sound of a tolling bell. Lewis revealed the lament theme with finely poised inflection, exceedingly sensitive coloration and a natural rubato. Each long note blended from the dying tones of its predecessor, and he built the rhapsodic central climax to massive orchestral proportions, enforced with his distinctive foot stomping on the stage floor recalling another great Schubertian pianist, Rudolph Serkin. In the theme’s final iteration, the tolling C sharps were played with deliberately equal emphasis, eschewing a possible Bebung effect, where the repeated notes are played with varying articulation to evoke the effect of quivering, which Beethoven explored in his late piano and orchestral music.
The first movement of the B flat sonata, beloved of pianists and audiences, is drenched in poignancy and nostalgia. The main theme is remarkably similar to the Credo from Schubert’s Mass in B flat, and Lewis delivered its melodic simplicity and transformations with the conviction of a belief one associates with a Credo.
Debatable however is the effect of Lewis arpeggiating chords at many important melodic or dramatic points in this movement. The arpeggiations are so rapid that the harmony is momentarily lost, and it is not clear why this movement in particular needs such an approach. Nevertheless, there is no pedagogical objection to rekindling historical performance practice by rolling chords; it is the way this is done.
In the tenderly probing lyricism of the sonata’s remarkable slow movement in C sharp minor, time seemed almost suspended and the horn-like calls of the second theme surged in the hall with an uplifting brassy quality. The ensuing Scherzo movement grew from the softest dynamic of the slow movement’s close conjuring the impression of a near mystical sense of joy. In the final movement Lewis grasped the audience with his playing of the recurring quizzical theme and its lyrical and forceful episodes, then propelled the work to an heroic conclusion.
Two hours before this recital, Paul Lewis performed Schubert’s G major sonata Op. 78, sharing its lilting beauty and investing its constant dance rhythms with ever-changing subtlety.
Anthony Halliday reviewed the piano recital given by Paul Lewis as part of the Melbourne Recital Centre’s series “Exquisite Classical Experiences” in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on February 6, 2024.