Paul Lewis is a pianist who appeals to cognoscenti. After a three-year traversal of the 32 Beethoven Sonatas at major venues, he moved on to a two-year consideration of the mature Schubert’s piano oeuvre. BMInt is very pleased to recommend Lewis’s upcoming Celebrity Series concert to our readers. The notable Liverpudlian will conclude for Bostonians the cycle of Schubert’s works he began in 2011. The program at Jordan Hall on January 12th at 8:00 pm will consist of Piano Sonata No. 19 in C Minor, D. 958, Piano Sonata No. 20 in A Major, D. 959, and Piano Sonata No. 21 in B-flat Major, D. 960. BMInt’s publisher recently had a conversation with the artist.
Lee Eiseman: You’re depicting the end of Schubert’s life in music with the three last sonatas, his final statements for the piano. This is appropriately the end of your Schubert cycle and is likely to be something really special. Hearings of D. 958, 959 and 960 together ought to be among the most memorable musical experiences one can have. Will you talk to BMInt readers about Schubert, the end of his life, and the end of your Schubert cycle?
Paul Lewis: I have been concentrating on the last six years of his life, basically from the time that he received his diagnosis of syphilis. This perhaps was his death sentence, when he came to the realization that he wouldn’t live long.
There was something that changed in the music at that point, not to say in any way that the music prior to that point was shallow at all, or lacking in emotional depth, but there was a different kind of darkness that came through, and in fact the sonata he wrote at the point at which he received the diagnosis, February, 1823, was the Sonata in A Minor, D. 784. It is staggering, and there’s nothing that prepared for that kind of musical language. It just came out of nowhere: the starkness of it, the anguish—it’s austere. Something had really started then. Whatever ideas we have of what Schubert was going through, or how he reacted to that news, his music certainly seems to reflect it. The music that he was composing certainly can be heard as his reaction. So that’s why I started at that point; the music becomes very interesting. There’s a thread of darkness that runs through from that point to the end of his life and by the time you get to the last three sonatas it reaches a different level altogether. If we take the first of the three, the Sonata in C Minor, there’s a sense of looking back into anguished times about it. If you think of the last movement as the sense of being pursued— it’s about trying to run from something but being unable to escape. Then we go into the Sonata in A major, which conveys the beginning of some kind of acceptance. At the very end of the piece, one of the most heartbreaking moments in the last three sonatas as a whole, he can’t let go of the main theme of the last movement; it’s like trying to say goodbye to an old friend though knowing it’s going to be the last time. And at the end, the Sonata in B-flat seems to look in a completely different direction. There’s a point at which in the slow movement Schubert really turns a corner and leaves all this trouble behind and looks to hope. There’s an emotional logic to these last three sonatas. So despite the fact that they make a very long, demanding program—demanding for the listeners as well as for the player—it would appear that because on the manuscript he labeled the sonatas as Sonata 1, 2 and 3, he was very likely suggesting that he meant these three pieces as a set.
To me the 2nd movement of the B-flat is as profoundly sad and moving as anything he ever wrote. But there is a sense that there is something beyond that sadness. Is it looking forward to a release from suffering, or backward to a nostalgic past?
Schubert’s music is full of nostalgia. There’s a lot of looking backwards. When we listen to the way he combines and contrasts major and minor tonalities, often placing a major tonality in the context of a minor one, the major seems sadder in a way because you have the feeling that you’re looking into the distance at something you can’t have anymore. That to me is a sort of overriding feeling there when he contrasts these two tonalities. But in the slow movement of the b-flat towards the end when you come out of the c-sharp minor into the c major, there’s something different: it’s not just sadness. Rather it’s like seeing the light somewhere—going towards something different. And then out of that come the Scherzo and the last movement. There are a few flashes of darkness, but there’s no real sense of turning back. It goes in a different direction. Something unique happens in this last major piano piece he wrote —a real turning point. It’s something quite unique in his output.
Do you have any feeling why he didn’t go on from the Wanderer Fantasy to do anything else in that vein? Do you see any of that work in any of these three last pieces in terms of virtuosity and cyclical construction?
No. I mean really it was Liszt who took that on board and developed that thread. He was the only one, though Schubert’s next major piano work after the Wanderer Fantasy was the Sonata in A Minor, D. 784. This was the pivotal work where everything changed.
If I think about the piano writing, something comes through in a piece like the Piano Trio in E-flat—especially the last movement—where you can state that it’s virtuosic with a point, with some sort of message, not just vacuous for virtuosity’s sake. There’s a real sense of involvement, of joy of playing the instrument which is different. I feel it is different from most of the late sonatas. That may be more connected to the Wanderer Fantasy.
Now I have a question for you about style from one of our reviewers. He says that, particularly with violinists, there are historically several schools of technique. Do you think that is true for pianists and how would you place yourself in the context?
I don’t think about that very much. I think it’s more up to the individuals to find their way to play their instruments connected to what they want to get across. You can say for sure that there are certain ways of playing the piano that have been passed down from various teachers and maybe those ways or those styles of playing take on a kind of nationalistic identity of some sort—I just don’t know what a British school of playing the piano would be, for instance.
When we want to characterize someone’s personality as being within a national stereotype, we can do that with musical approach as well, but it doesn’t tell me very much. It’s entirely up to individual musicians to find the ways of playing their instrument which most easily facilitate their ability to convey their message. That’s more important to me than more arbitrary schools of playing.
Some pianists are known as colorists and that’s seemingly about micro-subtle techniques of pedaling, but what’s the opposite? What do you call someone who isn’t a colorist? I’ve never heard anyone referred to as a non-colorist or a gray-ist.
I suppose that equals dull if there’s no color [laughs]. Sounds like something we don’t want to listen to. There has to be color, but some performers rely too heavily on coloring. If the performance is more about showing off a palette than about serving the message of the music, I don’t get it.
Color, as much as the technique just to push down the notes, always has to be at the service of the message. Of course colors have to be audible. But you cannot always make them so obvious, and so it’s not that we’re hearing a succession of colors, but we’re hearing something that makes sense and conveys an emotional message that we recognize.
And has it sometimes been impossible for you to achieve what you want in that department on a particular piano in a particular hall?
Oh yeah. I mean every piano is different in every hall. Put the same piano in a different hall and it’s a different piano, you know? Every time you sit down it’s different and I think we as pianists—some of us drive ourselves completely crazy with this. I don’t. I’ve gotten to a point myself where I think it’s important to try and step back. I try and prepare as much as I can in advance. If I know a venue and that there’s a particular piano in the venue that I like then I ask for that piano, if there’s a piano technician that I know and I’ve worked with before and I know that I liked their work I’ll ask for that piano technician. So you do what you can to make sure that the piano is in the shape that you would ideally like it to be. If not then you have to look at a different set of options. Do you want to fight with it all night? Maybe that’s not a particularly good idea. Another way to do it is perhaps to try to play to the piano’s strengths. To drop a little bit of what you’re expecting from your own way of playing and do it differently. Just try to be flexible. Because, after all, you’re the only person, the performer, who knows what you’re trying to do. Everybody else is listening from, if anything, a more advantageous viewpoint really. So they’re not comparing what they’re hearing to what’s in your mind—what you’re trying to do. So in fact there’s no loss there and if you try to play to the piano’s strengths and do what the piano can do best I think it’ll end up being a more pleasurable experience for everyone—for all involved. This is an endless topic with pianos, and piano technicians are driven up the wall by pianos and it’s just a vicious circle really.
I mean at your level of playing and in the halls where you’re performing, you’re not going to have a piano that is unplayable. You’ll just have a piano with idiosyncrasies that you either like or don’t like presumably.
Yeah, although you could go to a prestigious hall where a piano might not necessarily be unplayable, but it might not necessarily be in good shape, either. In fact it can sometimes be in pretty bad shape. You can have a wonderful instrument in bad shape and it will sound like a bad piano even though it’s not. A day’s work with a good technician can turn it round. Sometimes you have to stand up for that a bit.
I’ve experimented. I’ve practiced on some period instruments. I’ve never performed on any period instruments because I feel that I’d need to spend a lot more time with them before I did anything like that. Because they’re such different instruments, but I think it’s important to work on them a little bit to familiarize yourself with what the composers were working with at those times. And sometimes if a composer writes something in a certain way which maybe looks a little puzzling at first, you’re trying to figure out what they perhaps meant by that. When you go to an early instrument—the sort of instrument they were working with, suddenly it becomes clear. I’m thinking of passages like the end of the Waldstein Sonata where Beethoven writes an octave glissando. When some pianists play on the modern piano they actually play an octave glissando, some redistribute it. The point is that Schubert indicates pianissimo for an octave glissando. Now you can perfectly easily play an octave glissando on a modern Steinway, but try playing it pianissimo—I’ve never heard anybody do that. But you can very easily do that on the piano that Beethoven was working with because the keys were shallow, there’s not so much resistance, and it creates a very specific type of effect so for me. I try to transcribe that effect into the tones of a modern piano. So in other words rearrange it so that it sounds a bit like that. But I wouldn’t play an octave glissando because I couldn’t recreate the effect if I did.
And there are other extremes. I was listening to one of Andras Schiff‘s Beethoven lecture- demonstrations during which he played the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata. He put the pedal down in the beginning and didn’t lift it until the end of the movement. And maybe that would’ve worked on an early piano with less sustain but on the modern piano it just made an awful lot of mud.
Well if you’re going to play it on a modern piano and leave the pedal down for the whole five minutes of that first movement you have to be very careful with the balance, you have to play almost no bass at all because, on pretty much any modern piano the bass is a monster. And this is the problem: trying to get the bass in balance with the rest of the piano because the bass is generally so huge. That, of course, wasn’t the case 200 years ago. So yes you have to be careful with the balance. When I play I do play with a lot of pedal but I try to modify it a bit. Just filter it out where you seem to need it most.
In your professional life are you going to take up another cycle of many works of a given composer or are you planning to give more mixed concerts after the Schubert cycle is over?
After this Schubert finishes in the summer, my next recital program has Mussorgsky and Liszt and some Bach-Busoni chorale preludes with a couple of Beethoven sonatas. It’s important after you’ve concentrated pretty much exclusively on one composer for a few years to try to mix it up. I’m going to play Brahms’s Concerto in D Minor this year, which I recently played for the first time. There’s an awful lot of wonderful music out there that’s not by Schubert, and from a personal pleasure point of view, I don’t want to miss out on it. But I think it’s also healthy to try and touch as many colors of the repertoire as you can outside of those periods when you’re not concentrating on just one composer.
Is there any composer who’s going to remain outside your comfort zone?
I practice a lot of things at home that I wouldn’t, at the moment, play in public. It’s been about 10 years since I’ve played Bach in public. I love Bach and I play Bach at home. I work at Bach, but it just doesn’t feel like the right moment. No moment in the last 10 years has felt like the right moment for me to play it in public. I feel there are other things I can do more convincingly than Bach and it’s not for lack of love of the music. I’ve just not entirely convinced myself of the way I’d do it. But I wouldn’t really want to suggest that Bach remains outside of my comfort zone. I’d like to think in another ten years that I would play more Bach in public.
And what about Rachmaninoff?
I played Rachmaninoff a lot in my teens and 20s; it was a sort of mania. But I’ve been concentrating so much on other things since that time that maybe I’ve lost contact. I don’t play through Rachmaninoff concertos at home these days. Although I did get in touch, because I’m playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition later in the year and recording it next season, and when we were thinking of what to put on the CD with that, I was looking at some of the Russian repertoire I played 20 years ago. Balakirev came up, and I thought, why not play Islamey? Maybe I should have another go at some of the repertoire I haven’t touched since I was 21. Now that I’m almost double that age, or getting there, maybe it will feel completely different, and maybe I’ll find a link to it.