I will be surprised if 2013 brings a musical event more audacious, more edifying, and more fulfilling than British pianist Paul Lewis’s recital on Saturday.
Lewis, who is in the prime of his career, was making his long-overdue Boston debut. Happily, he eschewed the strategy of offering an assortment of pieces chosen to show off his range. He chose instead to make a bold statement about his artistry by playing Schubert’s last three piano sonatas. Like Beethoven’s late sonatas, Schubert’s both sit at the heart of the piano repertoire and exist in their own rarefied world, one not easily infiltrated. Tackling all three on the same program is highly unusual, but Lewis acquitted himself brilliantly.
Schubert was close to his premature death in 1828 when he wrote the three sonatas; they were published after his death and largely neglected in the 19th century. In them a relentless struggle between light and darkness plays out. Rather than shy away from the conflict, Lewis magnified it wherever it appeared. The opening movement of the C-minor Sonata, D. 958, was full of driving forward momentum. Gentler, sunnier stretches of music were played quickly, almost coldly, reinforcing the idea that whatever comfort the music had to offer would, sooner or later, retreat back into gloom. Lewis’s feat was to convey the expressive drama of the music without letting it overtake the virtues of poise and phrasing.
Indeed, Lewis’s approach was equal parts intelligence and daring, a fusion that emerged clearly in the slow movement of the A-major Sonata, D. 959. This is some of the most wrenching music Schubert ever wrote. Lewis consistently pushed back against its rhythm so that it seemed to limp forward irregularly. You got the impression that Schubert had to be pushed, with the utmost reluctance, to commit such sad sounds to paper. The effect is difficult for a performer to achieve without seeming self-conscious, but Lewis nailed it. The crisis that erupts in the middle of this movement was almost too painful to bear.
The final sonata, in B-flat (D. 960), is usually held to be the greatest of the three. Ironically, it is in large part the most placid and least openly conflicted of the three. Yet on Friday there was always a discomfiting sense that shadows lay just around the corner, hidden from sight. Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of what had come before; perhaps its lengthy, unfolding melodies were meant to convey resignation rather than serenity.
In any event, Lewis’s playing was fluent, insightful, and sensuously beautiful by turns. It is impossible to call any performance of a piece perfect, but it is hard to imagine this difficult music rendered more convincingly.
A well-filled Jordan Hall gave Lewis a well-deserved ovation. They did him a greater honor by remaining silent throughout almost the whole concert. With any luck, he will return soon.