Review: Paul Lewis plays Schubert at the Sheldonian

Music

It takes quite a pianist to hold an audience’s attention for two hours. Who would want to listen to a single person, on a single instrument for that long? But Paul Lewis manages it, filling almost the entire Sheldonian with an audience that hangs onto his every note. Lewis is one of the surliest performers, maintaining a straight-face throughout. It is refreshing and entirely fitting. These are serious works, composed in the last few weeks of Schubert’s life: there is no space for flamboyance and showmanship.

Although Lewis bounds into the opening of the C minor Sonata, beginning before the applause has fully died down, he initially has trouble obtaining intimacy, losing dynamic contrast in the Sheldonian’s large space. You can see that Lewis is playing loudly by the way that he throws himself at the larger chords, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that you can hear it. Lewis uses the space more to his advantage in the second movement. The held chords ring out effortlessly and then mysteriously fade away into the theatre’s open space under Lewis’ firm control. He handles moments of silence expertly, the audience sighing as they can’t help but to be drawn into Lewis’ world.

The real test comes during the slow movement of the following sonata in A major. It is Schubert at his most poetic and profound:  a sombre opening which sounds as though it could go on forever is interrupted from nowhere by tempestuous middle section. It is during the transition between the two when Lewis’ allure reaches its peak. The treble melody sweeps down in an utterly mystifying way, new and unexpected even for those who have heard the piece before. Lewis masterfully controls the middle-section’s storm, holding the menacing bass and dramatic trills in the treble in check. And even as the music returns to the tranquillity of the opening, the repercussions of the storm can still be felt. Indeed, Lewis takes noticeably more time at the end of this movement before starting the next, as if he still needs a moment to recover.

Lewis’ playing is an upward curve. Unlike with the C minor Sonata, Lewis takes plenty of time to start the final Sonata in B-flat. Instead of the opening being a shock, Lewis gives the impression that the music has already started before we hear it. We are only joining it on a journey that it has already begun. Finally Lewis achieves the intimate: his playing is inward, thoughtful and sensitive. It is only you, Lewis and the piano alone in the theatre. The crescendos pull you along with them, capturing the exquisite change from the gentle to the grand.

PHOTO / oldpianomusic