Playing Schubert in the shadow of Brendel

To the Wigmore Hall last night for an evening of late Schubert piano music, performed by Paul Lewis. A few years ago, Lewis stamped his mark emphatically upon the international piano world with his concert cycle and recordings of Beethoven’s complete piano sonatas, thus elevating him to the rank of one of the top flight pianists of his generation. Now, in another epic world tour, he is exploring the late music of Schubert.

Lewis was taught and mentored by Alfred Brendel – and it shows. Brendel famously does not teach – except for the chosen few (Imogen Cooper, Till Fellner). He performed (he retired in 2008), choosing to concentrate on the Viennese school, he writes and he gives lectures on music. His on-stage persona is austere, didactic, intellectual, highly disciplined.

Watching Paul Lewis play music composed in the last six years of Schubert’s short life, I felt the shadow of Brendel at his shoulder throughout the evening. The opening Waltzes, D145, written in response to the seemingly unending desire for dance music in Vienna, were largely serious, grand and solemn. Only occasionally was the music allowed to “let go”, offering brief glimpses of the private life of a composer who enjoyed evenings of music, song, women (and men, it is said) and wine with his friends, students and writers, radicals and intellectuals. As opening pieces, I would have liked more lightness, more spirit, more playfulness. And maybe a touch less darkness.

In the D899 Impromptus there was a greater sense of the music being thought out in advance, each signpost along the journey of these pieces clearly highlighted, lest we miss it. In the opening C minor Impromptu, there was less coldness in those early measures, less of a sense of the tyranny of the bare G which marks the opening, reminding us that this is a work which falls post-Winterreise. There was warmth in the major key measures and lyricism, but towards the end, from bar 160, the repeated Gs in the treble and bass were too mechanical, too obvious, robbing the music of its portentous chill.

The E flat Impromptu was rapid and polished, and, as a consequence, lost some of its agitation and hysteria. At times, during the Trio, the touch was too heavy and occasionally muddy. Though many measures in this section are marked fortissimo, at times there was not a proper sense or attack, or if there was, it was quickly reined in, cheating the music of its startling contrasts and harmonic and emotional shifts. This was even more evident in the final Impromptu of the set, the A flat. The opening semiquavers never really took flight, and some smeared or inaccurate notes suggested a tiredness on the part of the performer, possibly the result of having played this programme several times already.

The Hungarian Melody D817 was a pleasing opener for the second half, settling us in before the expansive G major sonata. It was enjoyable if overly dark, its folksy elements muted in favour of a grander delivery. (For a really wonderful performance of this piece, I would flag up Imogen Cooper’s from her ‘Schubert Live Vol 3’ album.)

The G Major sonata, D894, was the favourite of Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, and, in his hands, the spacious opening movement, marked Molto Moderato e Cantabile, comes in at 26 minutes, roughly the same length as an entire Beethoven piano sonata. It is graceful and meditative, Richter achieving an amazing stillness in the first motif. Paul Lewis opted for a brisker tempo, which suited the second subject elements better, but rather robbed the first subject of its grace and philosophy. In the middle movements, my attention began to wander: I craved more life, more bounce and vivacity. Throughout, the very cerebral reading of the score was evident (witness the powerful influence of Brendel!). The final movement was more questioning, charming and humourous, but overall I felt the sonata was played with too much gloss and a curious ‘intellectual complacency’ that diluted the music’s spontaneity and tempered the ever-shifting soundscape and emotional landscape of Schubert’s writing.

Paul Lewis repeats the programme at the Wigmore on Thursday night, and then in Oxford and Schwarzenberg, Austria, before returning to London next week for performances of Die Schëne Mullerin with tenor Mark Padmore.

As a postcript to this review, I must also mention Paul Lewis’s annoying habit of snuffling and “chuffing” as he plays. I have been aware of this “tic” before, and it seems to be getting worse. It was particularly noticeable during the quieter or more profound measures, and was obvious from the earliest bars of the first Waltz.

Sviatoslav Richter – Schubert: Piano Sonata No.18 in G, D.894 – 1. Molto moderato e cantabile

2 Comments

  1. A slightly severe, Brendellian take on last night’s performance! Not being a musician like you, I can only comment as an informed listener and Schubert enthusiast.

    I agree that Lewis erred on the side of portentousness on more than one occasion, but he wasn’t guilty of the ‘bashing’ that some performers resort to when performing late Schubert. The reining in of the fortissimos was for me a welcome element.

    I disagree that the first movement of the G major sonata lacked ‘grace and philosophy’ under Lewis’ hands. The music itself was allowed to ‘breathe’ as naturally as I would have expected. Nor was I disappointed by the Impromptus. The ‘cascading’ figures that feature in nos. 2 and 4 flowed like water (by all accounts a fiendishly difficult thing to achieve), no. 3 in G flat was utterly sublime, and no. 1 (which actually IS portentous) was played with a gravitas wholly appropriate to the piece.

    What stayed with me was Lewis’ virtuosity and the way he gave the listener—THIS listener, at least—a sense of discovering the music anew as it unfolded. A bravura performance, I thought. The normally reserved Wigmore audience seemed to agree!

    I notice you don’t mention the grunting, wheezing vocal punctuations, an annoying tic which doesn’t seem to be diminishing with time, sadly. (Another of our companions thought that someone had fallen asleep and was snoring!) This could well turn into a genuine impediment to the enjoyment of Lewis’ performances.

    • Can’t believe I forgot to mention the snuffling and the “chuffing”. It really annoyed me and spoilt some of the more delicate/profound measures. It’s definitely a virtuoso tic and one which needs to be “cured” or at least toned down. And it’s by no means as endearing as Gould’s humming and muttering. Or, indeed, my father-in-law’s tuneless singing!!

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