On July 24, Paul Lewis, the exemplary Liverpudlian pianist, will perform Franz Schubert’s last three piano sonatas in a recital at Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall. Composed a few weeks before Schubert’s death in 1828, the sonatas — D. 958, 959, and 960 — are, their age notwithstanding, a relatively late addition to the standard repertoire, not commonly appearing on recital programs until the 1920s and ’30s.
That they are common now is due to the advocacy of Artur Schnabel (1882-1951). Best remembered as a Beethoven specialist — he was the first to record all of Beethoven’s sonatas — Schnabel’s Schubert playing was equally revelatory. Schnabel (left) was introduced to Schubert’s sonatas by his teacher, Theodor Leschetizky, who called them “food for a musician.”
According to Alfred Brendel (Lewis’s teacher), Schnabel was possibly the first to program all three of the last sonatas on a single concert. In later life, in exile from the Nazi Party — first in England, then in the United States — the Austrian-born Schnabel would pare his repertoire down almost exclusively to the Viennese classicists: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert.
Schnabel’s Schubert performances were a touchstone. As a student in New York, composer Leon Kirchner once heard Rudolf Serkin perform a late Schubert sonata. Full of post-concert drinks and finding the interpretation wanting, Kirchner and a friend decided to call up Schnabel, now living in New York, in the wee hours to tell him how much they preferred his version. To the pair’s surprise, Schnabel actually came to the phone and talked with them for some time. Kirchner discovered that his own teacher, Roger Sessions, was friends with Schnabel, and a meeting was arranged. But, as Kirchner recalled, the two older gentlemen became so distracted by a pretty girl on the subway that the introduction never actually was made.
Paul Lewis performs Schubert. July 24, 8 p.m. Ozawa Hall, Lenox. 617-266-1200, www.tanglewood.org