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The Well-Tempered Pianist

New York
Metropolitan Museum of Art
04/29/2011 -  
Franz Schubert: 12 Waltzes, D. 145 – Four Impromptus, Opus 90, D. 899 – Hungarian Melody in B Minor, D. 817 – Piano Sonata No. 18 in G Major, D. 894

Paul Lewis (Piano)

P. Lewis (Courtesy of the artist)

Paul Lewis is not one to do things in small portions. When he performed a single Beethoven piano concerto at the Proms, he didn’t stop there, but played all five of them in the same season. When he was scheduled to play and speak about Schubert at New York’s 92nd St Y, he gave whole week of Schubert and Schubert’s “other universe”.

Thus, it was no surprise that the entire evening at the Met this week was devoted to more Schubert, some of it fairly rare. We all certainly know Schubert’s Divertimento on Hungarian Themes for two pianos. But nobody (except Lewis) would take the short one-piano inspiration, a pleasing Hungarian Melody. Many younger pianists might essay the fairly simple Schubert waltzes, but only Paul Lewis would play twelve of them in a row.

Fortunately, all of his music bears not only the intelligence and good sense of his mentor, Alfred Brendel. He is a pianist without pretensions, with no idiosyncrasies, with plenty of pauses when necessary, but no exaggerations. In other words, he allows Schubert to tell his own story, with the eloquence of Schubert’s own notes.

Story might not be the right word. Somewhere Mr. Lewis described the difference between Beethoven and Schubert. The former asked questions and tried to answer them. “Schubert,” he wrote, “asks questions, but has no answers.”

True, Mr. Lewis started with a dozen works which ask no particular questions. The waltzes are hardly in the Chopin class, but Mr. Lewis played the tiny works with gentleness, variety and aristocratic (if anachronistic) dignity. I once suggested to a fireworks-obsessed pianist, now deceased, that he could wow his audiences with one of these works as an encore, but he shrugged it off. Simplicity, though, has its values, as Mr. Lewis showed.

The Four Impromptus hardly plumbed new ground. Mr. Lewis has such respect for this music that his only goal was to play with fluency and grace, both of which he has in spades. In the first two, he had to sustain those long lines, with the most subtle crescendos. This is a pianist with exact control. Not the cold, almost pedagogical control of Mr. Brendel, but not excessive warmth either. The Impromptus instead were living, organic and with a steady sense of inevitable inspiration.

The greatest challenge of all was the ending work. The “Fantasy” appended to the 18th Piano Sonata hardly means fantastic. It means a wandering, a set of musical puzzles. Perhaps it only applies to the first movement, which Mr. Lewis played with a truly moderate translucency. He was not afraid to take the repeats, making it amble on, but never without interest.

The slow movement began with a song, but went on to an almost defiant middle section. It was the minuet which was most impressive, for two reasons. First, because the Trio is so delightful, and second, because the major theme hearkened back to the original waltzes of the program.

A thoughtful touch for a thoughtful, precise and always artistic personality.

Harry Rolnick



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