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Concert Review: Paul Lewis

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Schubert: Piano Sonata No.19 in C Minor, D.958
Schubert: Piano Sonata No.20 in A Major, D.959

- Intermission -

Schubert: Piano Sonata No.21 in B Flat Major, D.960

Paul Lewis, Piano

   English pianist Paul Lewis (b. 1972) has been recording the major art songs and piano works of Franz Schubert on the Harmonia Mundi label to wide acclaim. His most recent project, Schubert’s Impromptus D.899/Piano Sonatas D.840, D.850, D.894, attracts long-time devotees and new followers to this pianist’s consummate artistry. Mr. Lewis has delivered sensational sold-out performances in concert halls around the world, and of late, his programmes have devoted entirely to the works of Schubert. This afternoon’s event was no exception. In his only Canadian stop, as part of the “Music in the Afternoon” series of the Women’s Musical Club in Toronto, Paul Lewis made his début with Schubert’s last three piano sonatas.

   As a composer of the piano, Schubert reigns among the rank of Beethoven, whose music probe into the deepest joys and pains of humanity. Transparent lyrical melodies and moving bass-line dialogues are among the hallmarks of Schubert’s instrumental music. In his piano sonatas, particularly the last three (D.958, D.959 and D.960) written predominantly in the last two months before his death in 1828, Schubert reached pinnacle artistic and emotional heights on the very same grounds as his great Unfinished Symphony of 1820 and String Quintet in C Major of 1828 achieved. The three piano sonatas could be treated as a kaleidoscope of a lifetime of struggle, tranquility and hope. Like Beethoven before him, Schubert chose to compose the three last piano sonatas with contrasting moods and keys, where echoes of the great Ludwig could be traced in these works. With an ardent performer as Paul Lewis, the messages in this music spoke vividly and personally.

   Right from the very start, there was a deep sense of reverence from Mr. Lewis’ reading of the Sonata in C Minor (D.958). This reverence was founded upon the deep routes of Viennese Classicism – and as writer Max Harrison had described adequately, Schubert was “searching for something of newer or equal in value, but knowing well this was an ultimate search of hopelessness.” This state of mind was aptly transfigured by our pianist in his intelligent interpretation, convincing listeners that his approach was going to be one focused on the message behind the notes rather than mere technical display.

   Listening closely, one sensed a growing tug-of-war between intimacy and mystery lingering in the opening three movements. In the Scherzo & Trio movement, Mr. Lewis showed prowess in technical agility and episodes of emotional release. Throughout this piece, he was inexhaustible and searching for the right timbre to balance between clarity and the hall ambience. In some instances, he achieved this mission; while in others, the visual frustration on his face affirmed the severe difficulty of the under-conditioned Steinway instrument (named after Edith McConica) to cooperate. While the upper register was near completely flat, somehow Mr. Lewis made magic to void the sound from instantly dissipating by careful adaptations on the pedals of the piano to enrich the sound quality.

   In the Sonata in A Major (D.959), the center point of the three Sonatas, Mr. Lewis faithfully articulated both the “voice” and “vision” of Schubert at their very best. These were shown in exemplary in the two inner movements, the Andantino and the Scherzo, where Lewis contrasted them to the “dark” and “light” sides of Schubert’s sensitivity. The “dark” was represented by a little sad tune in F Sharp minor, which our pianist drove it into a turbulent storm at the end. The “light” was represented by a leisurely playing, with buoyancy in sound that one associated with youth. This combination reached a climax in the music materials of the Andantino movement, and in the subsequent resolution, particularly material in the Finale, Mr. Lewis pushed the instrument to its maximum to exert both warmth and glow analogous to spontaneous combustion.

   In the final Sonata in B Flat Major (D.960), Mr. Lewis saved all his emotional reserves almost seemingly to be released in this one mammoth Sonata. It was a work of intense emotional introspection. To begin, there was bold adventurism in the first movement, tranquility in the form of a funereal possession in the second movement, a lift of freshness and vitality in the Scherzo, and what felt like a hopeless battle of a defeated hero in the Finale. This was also the Sonata which Mr. Lewis took full swing of his technical abilities. After a gracious Scherzo played exquisitely in the third movement, he used the Finale to highlight a tension: one between pensive songfulness and gripping pianistic virtuosity. As a result of the poorly conditioned instrument, Paul Lewis neglected an encore despite voluminous enthusiasm from the audience.

By: Patrick P.L. Lam

Photo Courtesy: Paul Lewis, Women’s Musical Club of Toronto

Homepage: Paul Lewis
Homepage: Walter Hall, Toronto

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