In the last years of his short life, Franz Schubert (1797-1828) wrote his C Minor D. 958, A Major D. 959, and B-flat Major D. 960 piano sonatas. Whether or not he thought he was a dying man is unclear. Today, as the field of thanatology flourishes, three hypotheses address what carried this amazing genius off. The first centers on tertiary syphilis, an illness that generally lingers over years as spirochetes whirl around the body causing progressive mischief that can lead the mind to falter in fits and starts. The second is typhoid fever, an unlikely suspect whose symptoms are not all that different qualitatively from this month’s epidemic norovirus that may have contributed to the very few empty seats in Jordan Hall on Saturday night during Paul Lewis’s Celebrity Series recital. And finally, some scholars suggest that typhus, yet another infection, is the culprit. In contrast to syphilis, it likely would have delivered a fatal blow in a matter of days.
Given the collective knowledge of the psychiatrists and infectious disease experts I spied in the audience, combined with their rapt attention, the answer may come soon. But the differential diagnosis is also relevant when one tries to comprehend the three extraordinary sonatas. If indeed Schubert feared that his end was drawing near, he should have been subject to the feelings and moods that the psychiatrist, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, laid out in the late 1960s when she described five stages followed by those preparing for an untimely death: denial/isolation, followed by anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. That makes an attractive story, and musicologists search for correlates in these sonatas, but the problem has been that at least my patients over the years could never get that order quite straight. As these sonatas by Schubert may have indicated about his emotional state, my patients tended to exhibit conflicting emotions that came, went, and sometimes repeated in no particular sequence. And what about the other option; how should one view the sonatas if Schubert had not been planning to die? If his syphilis had been quiescent, and if he hadn’t been suffering from mercury poisoning as a result of treatment, then how should that modulate one’s view of these sonatas?
Paul Lewis, the pianist from Liverpool in the UK who began to study the piano at the ripe old age of 12, is of the school that views the last sonatas as expressing the sentiments of a dying man, as he noted eloquently in a recent BMInt interview here. But the extraordinary performance we were privileged to hear did not settle the issue for me. Indeed, it deepened the mystery.
Rather than as an example of Schubertian “heavenly length,” the entire evening seemed to flash by in minutes. I cannot in recent years recall an audience so rapt, so alert, yet so silent. Perhaps that’s because Lewis has an uncommon way of invoking pregnancy: the pressing need to know what’s next to arrive. And his complexity is astonishing. On the one hand he’s an understated Brit from the academy, but he’s happy to remind you also of his roots in the city that bred the Beatles. His use of rubato is subtle; you need to listen hard to catch both ebb and flow, but they are omnipresent. He doesn’t hit you over the head with the loudest or the softest, or the slowest and the fastest. But just when you think he won’t, he whispers. And just after you wonder about the other extreme, there’s a sudden jolt. He’s didactic, and then he meditates. He denies being a “colorist for its own sake,” but invites you to peek at hues and tones across the entire spectrum. He’s stern with the piano, then strokes it as his arms cross over. He doesn’t dwell on separate qualities for the voicing of the two hands, but somehow they are invariably distinct as they tell their stories.
So, after all that, how does one characterize his playing? Taken as a whole, it’s not as monumental as Serkin or Fleisher, as tumultuous as Argerich or Horowitz, as poetic as Novaes or Rubenstein, as elegant as Pressler or Arrau, as intellectual as Schiff or Brendel, as adventurous as Sherman or Gould, or as crystalline as Pogarelich or Haskil. But it has every one of those components ready at hand, to be drawn on when he so desires. Plain and simple, he’s among the elite, and this first public Boston recital should earn him tenure in the Celebrity Series, the BSO’s annual calendar, and any chamber group that can attract him.
A word about the piano: Lewis decided to play the Steinway native to the USA that was chosen for the revitalized Jordan Hall by a committee of elite pianists, including Russell Sherman and Gabriel Chodos.
In conversation overheard after the concert, Lewis expressed delight with his choice, and no one in the audience would be surprised. It is wondrously balanced from top to bottom, and clearly its action posed no problems for Lewis. It also taught me again how sound is a function of so many variables. I sat toward the back, stage left, for the first half, and then for the second found an empty seat half way back in the middle. During the first half, the piano sounded clear, balanced, sonorous, but not particularly warm. In the second half, it was burnished, with bells pealing and overtones dancing all over the place. Go figure…
Finally, Schubert and his state of mind: It’s no clearer to me than at the beginning of the voyage Lewis created, directed and produced. At one level the entire range of human existence came and went, at times chaotically, at times with eerie calm. At another level, there was inexorable order within each sonata and within the evening as a whole. In no small part because of Lewis’s magic, one always knew when the end of a movement drew near. I vote that this is not the music of an addled brain. Beyond being sublime, it has a seemingly inexorable order, as demonstrated by an absolutely extraordinary pianist.