The Schubert Cycle, Part II was the first of two concerts by pianist Paul Lewis in the Great Performers series for the Melbourne Recital Centre. The two all-Schubert programs are different, however, and show the breadth of the performers mastery of the composers works. Some of them are more challenging than others, but that was beside the point; this audience was attracted by Lewiss reputation as a sensitive interpreter of Schubert and they were not disappointed. What was disappointing or downright annoying was a highly audible clicking noise within the auditorium, to the sides of the stage, magnified by the excellent acoustics of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Too loud for an insect, not an electronic device, perhaps it was the lights warming up. In any case, Lewis must have heard the sound, but didnt allow it to distract him. Lewis walked out onto the platform, tall and dressed in basic black, and began to play the minute he was seated. In the first item, Six German Dances D.820 the pianist had the Steinway ringing with the clarity of bells as the dances merged one into the other. The reprises were notable for their soft dynamic contrast, and the prettiness of the work allowed the audience to appreciate the melody and harmony so characteristic of the composer, before the intensity of some longer works. One of these came next. Allegretto in C minor, D915 saw harmonies changing frequently. Lewiss technique is masterly but of great advantage was his pedalling necessary to the flow of the work, but fast-changing so as not to blur those harmonic changes. The influence of Beethoven was evident in this composition, and the program notes suggested a reason: the Allegretto was written in April 1827, soon after Schuberts only meeting with the great composer, who died shortly afterwards. However, although the major work in this half of the concert, Sonata No.14 in A minor D784, was written four years earlier, it too owes a debt to Beethoven, starting with its three-movement sonata form. Here were huge dynamic contrasts, the intensity of repeated chords and successive octaves relieved by simpler melodic passages. With its many moods, the first movement (allegro giusto) seemed like a complete sonata in itself, through to the echoes of the ending. (Another Lewis technique was to remove completely his hands from the keyboard and his feet from the pedals, thereby creating a number of moments of complete silence). Lewiss musicality was at its most evident in the andante, with Schuberts gift for melody wistful or lyrical supported by uncontroversial harmonies. Even the ornamentation seemed simple and effortless, although a view of the pianists hands told a different story. And in the allegro vivace the pianists fingers appeared to fly over the keys in long runs, accompanied by emphatic chords until a gentle rocking accompaniment took over. In all of this the insistent melody was never lost. The loud chords, showy runs, fast octaves and contrapuntal passages sounded more like Beethoven than Schubert but were a great demonstration of the technical prowess of a pianist whose musicality infused everything he played. After interval, the Four Impromptus D935 that were published posthumously provided interesting contrasts, and also an illustration of Schuberts maturity as a composer. The first, in F minor, opens like a sonata but soon appears to be breaking into a freer form. Challenges for the pianist included octave passages in both hands and crossing of hands (with the left articulating the melody). Lewis achieved a sense of balance amongst all this activity and kept interest in what (in lesser hands) could have been repetitive. Next was a simple repeated theme, pure Schubert in its apparently simple melody and harmony. Variation came in a small key change, arpeggios and a reprise of exceptional softness. The third was a set of variations, built around a familiar Schubert theme (for Rosamunde). For many this was the highlight of the night, being so quintessentially Schubert and by extension, so suited to Lewiss style. Some tried to clap, but Lewis pressed on with the final variation. It was very showy, technically demanding, and with only a little respite before a flourish to end. A favourite encore Schuberts Hungarian Melody in B minor D817 rounded off an enthusiastically received performance, that will have many coming back for the second program next week. And, as a timely coda, the Melbourne Recital Centre announced during interval that Paul Lewis will open the 2013 Great Performers season with the conclusion of his three-year cycle of Schuberts late piano works. Rating: 4 ½ stars out of 5 The Schubert Cycle, Part II Paul Lewis: piano SCHUBERT Six German Dances, D.820 SCHUBERT Allegretto in C minor, D.915 SCHUBERT Piano Sonata No.14 in A minor, D.784 SCHUBERT Four Impromptus, D.935 Melbourne Recital Centre September 6 A second performance, with a different program, will be held on September 12.