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 Recording of the Week  Sublime Schubert from Paul Lewis

Over the past ten years British pianist Paul Lewis has concentrated almost entirely on Beethoven. He toured the world performing and then recording all the Sonatas (the final volume picking up the Gramophone Record of the Year at the 2008 Awards), and then did likewise with the Concertos and the Diabelli Variations. More recently he has turned his attentions to Schubert. Three critically acclaimed discs of the song cycles with tenor Mark Padmore are now followed by his first release of the composer’s late solo piano music. It is released today and is without doubt the most moving, intimate and tender account of this music I have ever heard.

Paul Lewis
Paul Lewis

Schubert is often coupled with Beethoven as part of the same Viennese Classical tradition, but while Schubert adored Beethoven and they died less than two years apart, they were really from different generations (Beethoven was already 26 when Schubert was born) and there are as many differences in their music as there are similarities. As Paul Lewis pointed out in an interview in the Guardian newspaper earlier this year:

"everything is on a smaller scale than Beethoven; he is not in search of the big effect, but something more graded and intimate… Beethoven always seems to find a way through, even to triumph. Schubert never does. He never finds a solution. At least not after 1822”.

1822 was the year in which Schubert was diagnosed with syphilis. Virtually all Schubert’s masterpieces (both for piano solo and other genres) postdate this. It seems his impending death gave his music an extra poignancy and often bleakness which it didn’t have before. He left a number of “unfinished” masterpieces, not least the famous “unfinished” symphony, but the two movement “Relique” Sonata, D840 which is included here is an equally fine work. Whether these works were unfinished because Schubert had no patron or publisher, or whether it was because the first movements were so extraordinary that the composer didn’t know how to follow them is often debated. Either way though most of them have become accepted as ‘complete’ in their ‘unfinished’ state (if that makes sense).

Paul Lewis’s playing is characterised by a wonderful range of tonal colours and subtle control of moods. There is a real poise and intimacy about his playing and while he allows the energetic and unruly passages to threaten the status quo, they never succeed. This makes for tremendous excitement and anticipation but also a real heart-rending sense of inevitability. I have heard more dramatic performances, and also more ‘classical’ ones, but never anything so moving.

This new recording comes in the middle of a two-year world tour of Schubert’s late piano works (1822-1828) which Paul Lewis began in February this year, and apart from the UK and Europe also takes in America, Japan, Australia and China. I’d strongly urge you to go and hear him if you can – full details of his concert schedule on his website here. But for those who can’t get to the concerts, or like me want to be able to listen to these performances over and over again, I know he’ll be in the recording studio again in December and March which I gather will go towards the next instalment in what promises to be a really memorable series of recordings.

Schubert: Piano Sonatas D840, 850, 894 & Impromptus D899

Paul Lewis (piano)

Available Formats: CD, MP3, CD Quality FLAC, Hi-Res FLAC