SCHUBERT: The Late Piano Sonatas, Vol. 3 = Sonata in A Minor, D. 784; Sonata in C Minor, D. 958; Sonata in A Major, D. 959; Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960 – Paul Lewis, piano – Harmonia mundi HMC 902165.66 (2 CDs), TT: 2 hrs. 9 min. (5/5/14) ****:
British pianist Paul Lewis has made concerted efforts in behalf of Schubert’s late sonatas, particularly the last three, to which he has added the three-movement A Minor Sonata of 1823 as a kind of prelude to this composer’s last mortal thoughts in expanded keyboard expression. Composed during a stressful time in the composer’s brief life, the A Minor Sonata (rec. 2013) exhibits few of the niceties of Classical convention. The opening Allegro giusto conveys a spare sensibility, built from block chords in dotted rhythms that prove rather compulsive; and the actual melodic materials lie poorly for the hands, what performers call “unpianistic.” The second subject, more conciliatory, moves pp into E Major, set in clarion quarter tones. Lewis does provide some degree of human warmth in the Andante, which bears an arched melody that moves into the left hand and echoed in right-hand triplets, two octaves higher. But the essentially frantic character of the piece prevails in the Allegro vivace, set in constant triplet pattern and imitated in both hands. While the rondo has a few moments of relative serenity, the sensibility remains that of wild despair and abandon, as though the disease and emotional neglect in Schubert’s life had made its autobiographical significance palpably felt.
Schubert’s C Minor Sonata (rec. 2013) most powerfully aligns itself with the spirit of Beethoven – specifically Beethoven’s 32 Variations in C Minor – and its dramatic force finds a healthy exponent in Paul Lewis. The epithet “healthy” means to counter Alfred Brendel’s characterization of this work as “the most neurotic sonata Schubert ever wrote.” Even the cantabile episodes shimmer with a nervous and clearly articulate vitality, the bass lines rife with a thousand natural shocks. The “fate” motif, likely adopted beyond the obvious Beethoven Fifth to include the song Der Atlas from the Swan-Song Cycle, D. 957, resonates in various registers and through Lewis’ plastic counterpoints.
Lewis permits us a degree of intimate repose in the A-flat Major Adagio, which at first progresses to the status of a chorale. But a series of obsessive, percussive triplets soon upsets any notion of emotional calm, instilling from Lewis something like a clangorous dirge. The road back to emotional safety meanders and stutters, but a ray of sunlight does once more emerge from the miasma of experience. The Menuetto: Allegro – Trio constitutes the only real oasis in an otherwise tortured world. But it, too, emanates some storm and stress in those bold chords Lewis tosses into the air. The Allegro finale would prefer to dance the tarantella, but its obsessive gait and unsettling harmonies impel us to a wild ride whose motions, in retrospect, seem to parody the last movement of the more optimistic B-flat Sonata. Some gripping playing from Lewis here, who manages an askew beauty to this wayward masquerade. This performance for some will warrant the price of admission.
The Paul Lewis traversals of the last two Schubert sonatas appeared on Harmonia mundi in 2002. “Interpretations individual and thoughtful” read contemporary reviews. The A Major Sonata combines introspective lyricism with emotive angst, the polyphony insistent on some forceful drama or tragedy’s being played out from an originally hesitant motif. Some of the brisk filigree becomes manic, albeit lyrical. If Lewis seems more the diaphanous dreamer in the opening Allegro than my preferred Serkin account, he does not convey quite the chaotic, visceral force of the middle section of the Italianate F-sharp Minor Andantino with the same urgency Serkin possesses. Lewis does allow us access into his subjective space, which proves consistently expressive. After a relatively light, capricious Scherzo, Lewis embarks upon Schubert’s hybrid Rondo allegretto, an amalgam of rondo, variation and sonata-form, the material of which derives from the slow movement of his 1817 Sonata in D Major, D. 537. Approaching this large movement moderato, Lewis infuses a noble resignation to the figures, which do quote the octave descent from the sonata’s opening, the nature of whose return questions the apparent mood of joyful resolution.
Having just reviewed the B-flat Major Sonata by Gilbert Kalish, I compared their relative tempos, and Kalish and Lewis seem to agree in everything except for Kalish’s more expansive Scherzo. We all know that measure eight of the opening Molto moderato introduces a disturbing trill and pregnant fermata, but neither Lewis in 2002 nor Kalish wishes to expand this emotional conflict to undue, “metaphysical” proportions. Neither takes the first movement repeat. Rather, mortal thoughts assume an improvisatory, tender character, songlike and unaffected. Lewis conceives the affecting C-sharp Minor Andante sostenuto as cross of barcarolle and nocturne whose left hand ascends through four octaves. But the song becomes romantically voluptuous instead of tormented. Quicksilver, Lewis’ Scherzo applies the required vivace con delicatezza in flashing colors, the music’s impishly alternating between A Major and B-flat Major, the trio rife with syncopes. An expressive depth permeates the carefree dance of the last movement from Lewis, set in long chains of cantabile runs. If there is tragedy here, if Phaeton’s chariot must crash, he still smiles with the power he once held, his alone.