It was all Schubert and all magic for British pianist Paul Lewis’s local début under the auspices of the Women’s Musical Club of Toronto at Walter Hall on Thursday afternoon.
Dressed in rumpled black shirt and trousers, Lewis sat practically motionless and expressionless at the piano while his hands expertly conjured magic out of the three sprawling last sonatas of Franz Schubert.
These works, completed weeks before the composer died, aged 31, in 1828, give 10 fingers the responsibility to guide us through Schubert’s world, where the landscape sits under a partly cloudy sky that alternately places what we see (or hear, in this case) in warm sunshine and chilly shadow. One can’t exist without the other, and the art is in making the endless transitions as seamless as possible.
And the two hands must sing.
Schubert’s greatest gift to posterity were his songs, with their endlessly inventive accompaniments, and these three sonatas are no different. With the exception of little interludes, there is always a voice singing a beautiful melody somewhere in the music. Because these are songs, there needs to be constant momentum, tension and release in order to bring the music alive.
The interpreter also has to bring a lot of finesse to the piano, treating each note like a necessary utterance, even when that note or chord is repeated many times.
Sonata No. 19 in C minor (D 958), No. 20 in A Major (D 959) and No. 21 in B-flat Major (D 960) are not particularly demanding technically, but they require nearly superhuman feats of will to turn into poetry. Many pianists attempt them and record them, but few succeed the way Lewis did at Walter Hall.
Lewis has spent the last few years recording and performing all of Schubert’s piano works, to which he brings an unaffected virtuosity as well as tremendous control over every detail.
It sounded as if the pianist spent most of the first sonata trying to make peace with his piano; the performance was good, but lacked the deep glow of careful polish. But the two subsequent compositions were marvels of beauty. The final B-flat Major sonata was so beautifully played, so subtly nuanced, that the experience of listening was positively transcendent.
It’s taken a while for Toronto to get a visit from this great artist, and we can only hope that it won’t be a long wait for his next recital here.