Given the unalloyed delight of hearing the English pianist Paul Lewis’s magnificent traversal of the late sonatas of Schubert, it is hard to believe that these pieces, now so central to the piano repertoire, were once so peripheral, so neglected, as to be considered at worst non-existent or, at best, gemütlich items of curiosity. The latter view was neatly encapsulated by the great Schubert virtuoso, Alfred Brendel. In the early 1960s, he was on a recital tour of South America when Pope John XXIII died. In Buenos Aires, Brendel was politely asked if he could change his program to rid it of the Schubert Sonata in A. The reason: ‘It could arouse frivolous associations because of Lilac Time.’ Brendel explained that the sonata was ‘a profoundly tragic piece’, and played it as planned.
It was Brendel, like Artur Schnabel before him, who determinedly championed Schubert’s genius and helped usher many of his keyboard compositions out of the darkness. As Brendel has written, ‘It seems almost miraculous that a composer who had not been a virtuoso player himself could display such an instinct for novel and forward-looking possibilities of piano sound and texture.’ Brendel himself is the very manifestation of this credo, and I often listen, with gratitude and fondness, to his set of recordings for Philips of Schubert’s late piano works from 1822 to 1828. These were set down in the mid-1970s, when, incredibly, more than a few of the works were still rarely performed.
Streaking forward to 2024, and with the bicentenary of Schubert’s death a mere four years away, it is hard to imagine a piano recital without his presence. The recording catalogue, too, is swollen with Schubert: the final B flat sonata alone has more than 300 versions, and heaven knows how many more exist in online samizdat versions. In addition, there is no shortage of pianists willing and able to do Franz Peter justice. Paul Lewis is chief among them, and his outstanding Schubertian qualifications are assured not least because of his professional lineage: he was a pupil of Alfred Brendel.
This does not imply that Lewis is in any way imitative of his teacher, any more than Brendel is a carbon copy of Edwin Fischer. It’s more a matter of something more intangible – a sort of musical osmosis acquired and shaped according to individual technique and interpretation. Yet there is something generational in the passing on of knowledge and experience, without which any student would be the poorer. There is no question that the shimmering Schubertian filament that links Brendel and Lewis is of significant importance.
Lewis’s majestic recital on Tuesday night of the final three sonatas (Nos. 19, 20, and 21) was unexpectedly preceded, earlier in the evening and at short notice, by another Schubert work. One might have expected a sort of reverse encore (say, one of the Impromptus or Moments Musicaux), but Lewis, with astonishing generosity and admirable fortitude, gave us the Sonata No.18 in G Major, D894. This unfolded with all its melancholic mood changes, setting in place, as it were, the sonatas to come.
In all, not including breaks, Lewis played for almost three hours. I resist using the word ‘marathon’, which suggests a Wagnerian endurance test and resultant mutual exhaustion. Rather, Lewis’ trilogy-plus-one performance was far more cerebrally rewarding and not a nanosecond too long. The experience was, in effect, an arching continuum to which composer, performer, audience, and time and location all contributed.
Lewis, rightly, regards the final three sonatas as a triptych. As he said in a post-performance interview in the foyer (does the man ever sleep?) with the Melbourne Recital Centre’s director of programming, Marshall McGuire, the C sharp sonata is ‘terror-stricken … without resolution’; the A major is about ‘acceptance, coming to terms’; and the B flat is ‘beyond human … about whatever comes after’. This approach augured well for the recital itself, the sonatas, in effect, forming three independent pillars supporting a broader overall structure.
The playing throughout was all the finer for Lewis’s meticulous (but never fussy) dynamic control and ever-attentive sense of continuity. Nothing was forced; everything was considered; and Lewis showed scrupulous respect in presenting each sonata in a single paragraph. Between each movement, he would simply freeze, hands just above the keyboard, before almost imperceptibly lowering them to begin the next movement. The audience were as one – suspending the need to cough or rustle or whisper, but remaining (a rogue mobile phone apart) mute, attentive, and involved. This was the embodiment of player and listeners in communion, and vindication for Alfred Brendel’s words: ‘Silence is the basis of music … but silence ought also to be the core of each concert. Remember the anagram: listen = silent.’
After the interval, Lewis tackled the final, B flat sonata with almost symphonic breadth – that’s if that word can be applied to a performance that had the sonorous intensity of chamber music. Those celebrated bass trills in the opening movement have seldom sounded as growlingly ominous, and they led inexorably into the rest of this ever-astonishing work, whose complexities and mysteries remain eternal.
A word, too, about the MRC, which is about to turn fifteen. If it is possible that a hall can itself mellow with age and use, then there can be no finer example. I have always likened attending a recital there to being smuggled into the heart of a cello – or maybe double bass, given its size. That sense of seasoned wood and the intricacies of its patterns, focusing the eye towards the music-making and the glorious sound that ensues. Melbourne is lucky to have such a hall. We are also lucky to have it embellished by musicians such as Paul Lewis, whose Schubert playing matches in every way the hall’s burnished beauty.
Paul Lewis (Melbourne Recital Centre) performed in the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on 6 February 2024.