After almost fifty years of listening to them, I would contend that three of the greatest works in all Western Classical Music are included in this new recital by Paul Lewis—Schubert’s great D.894 G Major Sonata, the D.899 Impromptus, and the D.946 Drei Klavierstücke—and in close to ideal performances. This is a mighty claim, of course, and I do not expect listeners to take it at face value—fortunately the proof is easily, and cheaply available.
I was never very convinced by Lewis’ Beethoven performances; I tried repeatedly to like his readings of both the solo and concertante works, but always came away feeling frustrated and underwhelmed. Admittedly, I have a temperamental disaffinity with Beethoven’s melodramatic psychology, but even so I find performances by Stephen Kovacevich, Andras Schiff, or particularly Ronald Brautigam far more engaging. For me to feel so positive about his Schubert, the nineteenth century composer closest to my heart, is therefore a strong endorsement. Even so, there are Schubertians and Schubertians: I never felt particularly touched by Lewis’ mentor, Alfred Brendel’s Schubert, and amazing though the notorious Richter überslow performances of the great G Major and C major Reliquie Sonatas are (4758616), his is not the Schubert I recognise. I grew up with the performances of Jörg Demus on Deutsche Grammophon, and it is to those that I would compare Lewis’ unaffected, masterly performances. His use of microrubato to colour phraseology while maintaining an unfluctuating main tempo is wonderfully effective; his ability to imbue the music with solemn beauty without pathos is outstanding.
The three Schubert Sonatas that everyone knows and loves are the final three, C minor D.958, A major, D.959, B flat major D.960. Lewis has, however, chosen to perform their precursors, the energetic D major D.850, sublime G major D.894, and the unfinished C Major Reliquie, D.840—he only plays the first two movements of this work, where Richter essayed the two unfinished final movements, ending heart-breakingly in mid-flow. I rather wish Lewis had done likewise, but one cannot have everything. Both D.840 and D.850 are emulations of Beethoven’s sonata approach—in fact, it is possible that Schubert abandoned the last two movements of D.840 as the thematic material was too redolent of Beethoven’s Op2/3 Sonata to be susceptible to true Schubertian shaping—but the sound world is entirely his own. Lewis clearly has a strong feeling for the logic of these pieces, and his ability to convey the architectural meaning while not losing an iota of expressivity is remarkable.
In contrast to the formal predeterminedness of the Sonatas, Schubert’s shorter pieces simply astonish. Often made out of deceptively simple component material, the eight misnamed Impromptus (there is not the slightest thing throwaway about these pieces) and the three Klavierstücke D.946 take the listener into a largely unprecedented realm of expressive possibility, and with an un-sonata-like compression of ideas. There are innumerable versions of these works on CD, but I have heard few performances as good as these—in fact, the Drei Klavierstücke as performed by Lewis are probably my single desert island disc. Consistent with his reading of the Unfinished D.840 Sonata, Lewis declines to play the second trio of the first of the D.946 pieces—Schubert put a line through that section in the manuscript. It seems a shame to be denied the pleasure, but it is true that doing so extends the length of the work sufficiently to cause an imbalance with the final, much briefer, Klavierstuck, with its single, extraordinary, trio.
Even legendary recordings have to be new at some point, and we may well collectively remember the release of this Schubert set as a special moment in early twenty-first century musicmaking. I certainly shall.