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Paul Lewis, Schubert, & the Practice of Silence


Following Paul Lewis's most recent Jordan Hall concert. (BMInt staff photo)
Following Paul Lewis’s most recent Jordan Hall concert. (BMInt staff photo)

Paul Lewis gave bravura performances of Schubert’s composer’s final three piano sonatas in Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood on Wednesday.

What we did hear in “Boston’s musical duchy” (seriously?) was a fabulous reading of Schubert’s set of final three piano sonatas dedicated to Johann Nepomuk Hummel, each sonata being in four movements and each reacting to the music of Beethoven. These 1828 sonatas are remarkable in their ability to develop a single musical idea into forty-odd minutes of music across all the movements of a sonata. This practice gives each a consistency and integrity even as the core theme expands or contracts, changes tempo or modulates into a related key. Lewis’ playing is a perfect foil for Schubert’s music:  he ably brought out the horizontal and the vertical dimensions in this concert. At the same time, his sensitive, nuanced touch brought out the lines and voices within the music. Lewis was highly effective in using counter-themes to build tension in his readings.

In a recital running almost two full hours, Paul Lewis proffered profound revelations in his readings of these Schubert sonatas. The concert opened with Sonata in C Minor, D. 958. Lewis brought out the variety of themes and characters in this piece, making a clear case for the ways in which smaller musical cells collide to become a sonata. The opening Allegro was a compendium of happy dances vying for prominence against a theme of great sadness. The Adagio was marked by a tenderness striving towards the ineffable even as a lilting happiness fought to the fore. The Menuetto:  Allegro; Trio was a study in frustrated expectations. The finale, Allegro, began attacca and finally the dance took off and the music flew by.

Next was Sonata in A Major, D. 959. The Allegro opened with sparkling staccato notes, then turned to moments of haughty imperiousness coupled with delicate legato phrasing. The Andantino was a study in heartbreak, rage alternating with melancholy sadness; here Lewis deployed a great range of quieter dynamics to convey his reading. The Scherzo:  Allegro vivace; Trio:  Un poco più lento was both playful and caressingly tender. This sonata concluded with a Rondo:  Allegretto—Presto that opened with all the nobility of a flowing chorale; agitated declamations provided contrast. The rubato of the written grand pauses concluding this piece were perfectly paced.

Following intermission, Lewis returned to the Steinway for Sonata in B-flat Major, D. 960. The Molto moderato opening started with the intimacy of quiet trills, which ceded the stage to the subtle suspension of a dance tune, begun but left distractedly unresolved. The Andante sostenuto was marked by the pathos of ruminations on a phrase trying to transcend its own character and limitations. The Scherzo:  Allegro vivace con delicatezza; Trio was scampering, playful, delicate, even as the play with offbeats destabilized auditory expectations. The finale, Allegro, ma non troppo—Presto displayed a fleeting access to power and rage before the return of delicacy and insight.

The post-concert silence was richer, tastier and more satisfying for having followed Lewis’ performance.

An afterthought: Driving out to Tanglewood Wednesday afternoon, I thought I was going to hear Daniel Harding conduct the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. The program was to include music by Brett Dean (Testament), Schumann (Symphony No. 2), Sibelius (Symphony No. 7), and Lewis soloing in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25. A conversation in the car, the use of some data on a smartphone plan, and I learned that was not the program for the night. Well, I thought, I bungled my calendar somehow, and then spent some time wondering how I had managed that. The posters at Tanglewood listed Lewis in recital, and the Box Office staff thought the concert change had taken place “a while ago.” By this point, I had had some time to regroup, if not necessarily read up on the evening’s program. Then Thursday morning I noticed an “Out of Town” concert listing in the current (July 29, 2013) issue of The New Yorker: “Tanglewood Boston’s musical duchy offers a bevy of concerts this week; here are some highlights. July 24 at 8:  An unusually interesting midweek concert features the Tanglewood début of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Conducted by Daniel Harding, with the poetic pianist Paul Lewis as soloist, the program includes…” (everything I had listed on my calendar). So. There was a late change in the line-up. I never got that memo, and can only hope ticket holders did. I fear it might have gotten lost in the mad scramble to cover all the other changes in the line-up this week.

’Tis a pity though:  I’ve still not heard the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, and they still have not made their Tanglewood début. I do agree with The New Yorker on this point:  it was an unusually interesting midweek program they proposed. Ambitious, too. None of this, however, detracted from the concert that was on offer, except perhaps to deprive Lewis of his full billing for this recital.

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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