Paul Lewis review – Schubert begins with a stutter and ends with conviction

Wigmore Hall, London
A rogue hearing-aid forced a restart to the pianist’s survey of Schubert sonatas, but once things settled, Lewis confirmed what a superlative interpreter he is of these works

Schubert has been one of the mainstays of Paul Lewis’s repertory since the beginning of his career. His cycle of the Schubert piano sonatas in the early 2000s, in concert and on recordings, played a major part in establishing him as one of the leading British pianists of his generation, and those works have been regularly included in his recitals ever since. Lewis is now returning to the sonatas in earnest once again, with a plan to survey them across the next two years in four programmes that he is touring internationally.

At the Wigmore Hall, the first of those recitals began rather unfortunately, when the howls of an audience member’s hearing aid gone feral, only silenced after repeated pleas from the hall’s director, forced Lewis to restart the sonata with which he opened, the E flat, D568. Perhaps as a result the performance never quite seemed to settle; in a work that often sounds more like Mozart or early Beethoven than Schubert, and which in any case is a revision of an earlier sonata in D flat, textures often seemed cloudy and cluttered, its classical outlines obscured.

At the piano in the Wigmore Hall in 2020.
At the piano in the Wigmore Hall in 2020. Photograph: Wigmore Hall

But there was no mistaking the stature of the A minor Sonata D784, one of Schubert’s great tragic statements, though some of its most powerful climaxes seemed less tragic in this performance than they can seem from more histrionic pianists. Lewis’s playing was more poised here, though some textures were still less than ideally defined, and while never exactly monochrome, there are surely more colours to be found in this music than he suggested here.

After the interval everything fell into place in the D major Sonata D850. It’s the nearest thing to an extrovert work among Schubert’s great, late sonatas, and Lewis launched into it with real glee, taking the first movement at a tempo that stayed just on the right side of reckless, and bringing a sense of wholeness to his performance that had sometimes been lacking earlier. His treatment of the finale was utterly convincing; a main theme that can seem irritatingly twee in the wrong hands was positively elegant, and the episodes that seem to take the sonata into different expressive worlds altogether, were nicely mysterious. By the end, one really could relish the prospect of the recitals to come in this series.

The concert is repeated on 2 December, and then in Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, on 6 January.


Andrew Clements

The GuardianTramp

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