SCHUBERT: The Late Piano Sonatas
“If someone shouts at you it’s a shock,” Paul Lewis once told an interviewer. “But if someone gives you awful news in a softly spoken way it’s sinister.” He was describing Schubert’s piano music, the way in which catastrophe emerges from the seemingly innocent origins. But it also fits his specific way into this composer’s works. Rather than search out and play up its many tragic moments, Lewis keeps his eye fixed on the larger paragraphs, so that the tragedy arises naturally, and is the more powerful for it.
This set, the final recorded chapter in Lewis’s multiyear Schubert project, contains the canonical last three sonatas, as well as the A minor Sonata, D. 784. It is full of exemplary Schubert playing, at both the macro and micro level. Listen to how Lewis sculpts the dark opening melody of the A minor Sonata, beginning in near-silence and unfolding with great uniformity. Or the way he keeps momentum going in the slow movement of the C minor Sonata, D. 958, allowing just enough space between phrases to let the music breathe.
Those two sonatas were recorded in 2013; the A major (D. 959) and B-flat (D.9 60) are reissues of performances from 2002. It’s a shame that Harmonia Mundi didn’t give Lewis the opportunity to record those again, as one suspects that the frequency with which he’s played them has triggered some evolution in his approach. The A major Sonata, in particular, seems to have a bit less daring and specificity than the version I heard him play at Jordan Hall last year, though that may be the difference between live and recorded performances. But the B-flat remains a great accomplishment: well shaped, serene, and unsentimental, with darkness never far from the surface.David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.