Archive for October, 2011

Paul Lewis (again)

Paul Lewis

On Sunday, a new season of piano recitals at Chicago’s Symphony Center started as the last had ended, with a recital by Paul Lewis. This was the third installment in his two-year traversal of the mature piano works of Schubert, so his approach to the music is now becoming quite familiar (as is his performance wardrobe, although his mandarin shirt was a deep blue this time). His playing is consistently beautiful, with an effortless cantabile tone, immaculate voicing, and a flexible pulse that responds keenly to Schubert’s fluctuating moods. He clearly has a special affinity for Schubert and seems to be enjoying the luxury of devoting himself entirely to his music for such an extended period of time. It also frees him from the need to join the Liszt band-wagon in this bicentennial year. Much as I love Liszt (at his best), it was a relief to find a brief haven from all the opera transcriptions and other virtuosic pot-boilers filling the local airwaves.

Lewis started with Schubert’s second set of Impromptus, D935, a work for which I have particular affection. Brendel played them in the very first recital of his I ever heard in, I think, 1972, and then played the second as an encore the last time I heard him in London in 2008, just before his retirement. Some have suggested that the four movements form a sonata in all but name, but the first movement doesn’t have the emotional drama, let alone the musical development, that characterize his real sonatas; it’s too episodic. It starts with a rhetorical flourish and proceeds with self-important swagger, but it soon subsides into a quiet dialog between upper and lower registers, both parts played by the left hand. It is such a convincing musical portrayal of a conversation, with urgent questions followed by sage replies, a sense of anxiety giving way to wistful repose, that I have often tried to imagine what they were actually saying. It’s tantalizing, like watching a foreign language movie without the subtitles.

The second and third pieces are Schubert at his most congenial and relaxed, with the Rosamunde variations delivered here with effortless charm and vivacity. The final piece is one of Schubert’s most virtuosic, and brought out some of the most individualistic playing of the afternoon, Lewis letting his hair down (so to speak) so that he could snap his fingers to the Hungarian rhythms, rock to the ostinato octaves played with exaggerated syncopation, and plunge into the torrent of scales.

The second half started with another set of miniatures, the Moments Musicaux, D780. These pieces allowed Lewis to produce some of his most intimate playing. There is a quiet gravity about this music, only interrupted twice, first in the central part of the second piece which contains an aching cry of anguish and, in the fifth piece, by a violent outburst positively seething with anger. However, the final piece restores a profound sense of calm and acceptance. Schubert’s mature style is usually considered to have been a response to the diagnosis of syphilis that eventually claimed his life several years later. These pieces, with their composure and lack of self-pity, are particularly moving seen in this context.

After such quiet introspection, the Wanderer Fantasy D760 positively exploded with energy and drive. It was almost as if Lewis had switched his piano for a turbo-charged model, producing a dramatic increase in the volume level. This is music that was too difficult for Schubert himself to play but no problem at all for Lewis, who brought plenty of verve to the faster passages. Liszt admired this work enormously (so perhaps Lewis hadn’t entirely avoided the anniversary), but I had always assumed it was the virtuosity that attracted him. However, after this performance, I think he must also have been influenced by the extraordinary sonorities at the end of the slow section, with ominous tremolos and restless accompaniment depicting a ghostly landscape that would have thrilled anyone of a romantic disposition. The last section is a real knuckle-buster, relentless and loud, with enough pounding octaves and swirling arpeggios to guarantee a standing ovation, which Lewis duly received.

For the first time in three recitals, he gave an encore, Schubert’s enigmatic Allegretto D915. After finishing with such a barnstormer of a piece, even a musician as serious as Paul Lewis could not say no. But I would guess that he will revert to type in the final concert next April and the lady who chastised him in February for not fulfilling this particular obligation will be frustrated once more.


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