“Schubert Piano Sonatas”
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonata in A major, D 664 – Piano Sonata in E‑Flat major, D 568 – Piano Sonata in A minor, D 537
Paul Lewis (piano)
Recording: Studio 4, Flagey, Brussels, Belgium (April 2022) – 74’38
harmonia mundi HMM 902690 (Distributed by [Integral]) – Booklet in French, English and German
The English pianist Paul Lewis has an aura of gentle affability about him reflected in his interpretations of the classical through early romantic composers. I met him briefly two years ago when he gave a Beethoven recital in a New Jersey church. There, his take on works in the fantasia mode, such as the Moonlight Sonata, brought out a gossamer quality not often revealed. Now, the much-recorded pianist brings a similar light but elucidating touch to three early sonatas by Franz Schubert in a new album on the harmonia mundi label.
The collection begins with one of the A major sonatas, D 664, composed in 1819, putting it at about the same time as the Trout Quintet. Schubert was enjoying a summer respite from the demands of city life at this time as he toured northern Austria with a friend. Lewis captures the wonderful freshness and youthful charm of this three-movement work. In the first movement, the longest in the album, the melodies flow naturally from Lewis’s fingers as he seems to free the music from captivity, as one would release a small bird. All is clarity, but there is no jarring crispness to this march of tones. There is drama when called for in the bass line, yet the last notes fade softly away, like the petals of late summer roses.
After a wisp of an “Andante”, the shortest track in the collection, Lewis brings a gentle lilt to the sonata’s third and final movement in 6/8 time. Sixteenth notes fly up and down the keyboard as Lewis paints this tonal portrait with a blend of control and emancipation. I like the way Schubert employs silences here and there, much as Beethoven does in his own sonatas, as the work winds through the young composer’s musical pathway, speckled with his distinctive use of accidentals. The work tiptoes to its conclusion, landing firmly on an A major triad.
Although the next sonata (D 568) is in the heroic key of E‑Flat major, I sense a hint of foreboding missing from the previous work. The history of the sonata reveals some unsettling twists and turns even as Schubert’s health took a turn for the worse. Schubert completed three movements in 1817, then abandoned the project, at least for a time (another of his “unfinished” masterworks). In the last weeks of his life, he returned to the sonata, transposing it from D‑Flat to E‑Flat, expanding the earlier movements and adding a minuet with trio.
Throughout this performance, Lewis’s playing conveys a subtle sense of yearning. He reveals to us a composer who is reaching up, not for the stars as other romantics would attempt, but rather for a lifeline, for any glimmer of hope. A few minutes into the first movement, he sweeps up the keyboard in a series of broken chords against an agitated Alberti bass, then with an exquisite sense of timing and proportion, falls back in a sigh of exhalation. Lewis’s treatment of the second movement has a hushed, conversational quality, as though whispering to oneself. The third movement, “Menuetto, Allegretto”, cushions rustic, skipping rhythms in a blanket of softly articulated tones. Here, follows a shower of 16th notes in the final movement, landing on a solid E‑Flat chord at the end. With his sensitivity of touch, Lewis takes Schubert’s revelations seriously, even when they take the shape of a humble Ländler.
The album concludes with the earliest of the works on this album, the Piano Sonata in A minor, D 537, composed in March of 1817. Lewis brings a kind of melancholy cheer to the three movements, the tempo of each a form of Allegro. About five minutes into the first movement, Lewis offers some moments of true intensity, perhaps the most dramatic in the album. But it is in those moments of delicate sensitivity and attention to detail that the pianist shines. An example occurs about 7‑1/2 minutes into the movement when a turn and a grace note perform a breathless pirouette. Purely captivating, and so natural as to be almost unnoticed.
These are the sounds of Schubert in the making, performed by Lewis with grace and attentiveness. By the final measure, the Sonata in A minor has transformed into a positive A Major chord. In this simple act, it is as though composer and pianist, working together, have at least temporarily subdued the storms of circumstance and perhaps of life itself.