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WEBER: Piano Sonata No. 2 in A-flat Major, Op. 39; SCHUBERT: Piano Sonata in B Major, D. 575 – Paul Lewis, piano – Harmonia mundi HMM 902324, 57:34 (2/8/19) [Distr. by PIAS] ****:

Recorded April 2017, these two early examples of burgeoning Romanticism find a dedicated advocate in Paul Lewis, who injects a degree of passion and dramatic energy that exploits their vocal and operatic influences without that distortion that can occur from misplaced vehemence.  Weber conceived his Sonata No. 2 in A-flat Major in 1814 whilst living in Prague, though he completed the work two years later, in 1816 Berlin.  At the time, Weber had become engaged to Caroline Brandt, and the spirit of ardor and vocal lyricism saturates the otherwise sturm und drang sensibility of its mortal storms.

Portrait Carl Maria Von Weber, by Ferdinand Schimon

Carl Maria Von Weber, by Ferdinand Schimon

The first movement, Allegro moderato, con spirito demands bravura and potent digital fluency, especially in its tumultuous development section.  But the Andante, too, has in its course of labyrinthine variations, moments of colossal emotional stress even in the midst of intimate sentiment. The writing often reminds us of the contribution of Hummel, bridging the styles of Mozart with those of the Romantics, such as Schubert and Chopin. What Weber calls Menuetto capriccioso we might well interpret as a wild scherzo, given its tensely aggressive sensibility. Whimsical and willful, the music surges with a sense of brilliance and gusty bravura whose mood swings must have delighted Berlioz.  The rhythmic agogics defy easy manipulation or description, and their sudden eruptions have something of Beethoven’s vitality.  The last movement, Rondo, applies itself to sonata-form in a rather genteel and ornamental fashion, but the left hand indulges in passing harmonies worthy of note. The expansive dialogue, high and, resounds with the grace and vocal arioso from Mozart, but the dark harmonies add a color, even a bucolic nostalgia, that quite belongs to a highly individual musical voice. If the work were meant to celebrate Weber’s emotional commitment to his beloved Caroline Brandt, it succeeds beautifully as a romantic vehicle, especially in this fervent reading from Paul Lewis, whose sound has been captured by Sebastian Nattkemper.

Portrait of Fanz Schubert

Franz Schubert,
by Josef Kupelwieser

Critics tend to regard the Schubert Sonata in B Major, D, 575 (1817) as among the so-called “experimental” pieces, especially in this work’s first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, which embraces four distinct keys for musical evolution: B Major, G Major, E Major, and F-sharp Major.  The opening motto theme in dotted rhythm proceeds as an ungainly march, superficially awkward but modulating with spirited confidence. Before the recapitulation, Schubert transposes the music – which has enjoyed what musicologists like to characterize as “circuitous routes” – up a perfect fourth so the music might resolve in the tonic major. The Andante begins in the style of a chorale, but the motion becomes more agitated as the music evolves, finding a bit of the Beethoven “fate” motif in which to cavort in diverse voices. The melodic line, too, assumes an askew and serpentine quality that likens the youthful Schubert’s voice to aspects of Berlioz.  The E Minor Scherzo presents a two-note upbeat which softens the ‘tragic’ effect. The music modulates into a more sunny G Major, which allows the Lewis tone to shine.  The middle section moves again, this time into D Major with an ostinato, gently martial pulse. Lewis’ staccatos enjoy a clean, virile bite. The last movement, a swaggering tune marked Allegro giusto, bears a string sense of triplet figuration in the course of its sonata-form evolution. The secondary tune, dolce, experiences intrusions of a decidedly rhythmic kind, while the right hand takes into uncharted melodic areas. The tune plays out in one final, full statement before Lewis concludes with one resounding chord.

We have two divergent visions of Romance, performed by a gifted interpreter who enjoys the notion of unity-in-variety.  Well done, all around.

—Gary Lemco