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Schubert: Piano Sonatas D 840, 850 & 894, Impromptus D 899 / Paul Lewis

Schubert / Lewis,Paul
Release Date: 11/08/2011 
Label:  Harmonia Mundi   Catalog #: 902115  
Composer:  Franz Schubert
Performer:  Paul Lewis
Number of Discs: 2 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

SCHUBERT Piano Sonatas: in D , D 850 (op. 53); in G , D 894, op. 78; in C , D 840, “Reliquie.” 4 Impromptus , D 899 (op. 90). 3 Klavierstücke, D 946 Paul Lewis (pn) HARMONIA MUNDI HMC 902115.16 (2 CDs: 157:37)
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A decade ago, in 2002, I reviewed a CD of Schubert sonatas recorded by Paul Lewis at the beginning of his career. After winning the sponsorship of Juventus, a French organization dedicated to promoting the careers of promising young artists, he started recording for Harmonia Mundi. That first Schubert recording was impressive, revealing a pianist who blended technical and musical power, and showed an affinity for Schubert’s expressive writing. Since that recording, Lewis has achieved a formidable reputation among today’s crop of successful young pianists, specializing in a repertoire of Beethoven and Schubert (perhaps partially influenced by his study with Alfred Brendel). Along with a busy concert schedule, he is building an impressive discography, having recently recorded the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and concertos and the Diabelli Variations , as well as chamber music works of Mozart and Schubert, and the latter’s great song cycles, Winterreise, Schöne Müllerin, and Schwanengesang, with the tenor Mark Padmore. This partnership has evoked more praise for the pianist than the singer among some critics, including Fanfare ’s Raymond Beegle, who stressed Lewis’s “imaginative powers,” and wrote ( Fanfare 35:3) that “Lewis’s accompaniments move with an irresistible, almost forceful flow, carrying the singer on its current, often setting a dramatic tone his collaborator is not capable of matching.” High praise for the pianist indeed!

In this current CD, Lewis again impresses with his Schubert interpretations. The opening of the G-Major Sonata, with its simple chordal writing, has a serene quality suitable to the bucolic character of this sonata; the tempo is slow (another of Schubert’s rather ambiguous performance indications of Molto moderato e cantabile ), but the momentum moves it forward, and the crisp dotted rhythms give it a rhythmic pulse. In general, Lewis chooses appropriate tempos, always a critical factor in successful Schubert performances. He has a wonderful sense of line, and phrases are shaped very convincingly. Other positive attributes in his playing are his refined and colorful keyboard touch, and his sensitive response to Schubert’s lyricism. In this respect he is a far more satisfying performer than Brendel, whose playing of Schubert has often sounded harsh and brittle. There is one caveat: Lewis tends at times to become fussy; as Charles Timbrell noted in a review in Fanfare 25:5, “There is a certain amount of point-making, especially in the form of caesuras, commas, and added rests.”

The so-called “Reliquie” Sonata, D 840, has been recorded a great deal in recent years, in both its unfinished form (the first two movements are complete, but the third and fourth were left as fragments), and in completions by Brian Newbould, Paul Badura-Skoda, and others. Lewis elects to play just the two finished movements, and his interpretation is dramatic and musically interesting, comparing favorably with the fine recording by the Austrian pianist Gottlieb Wallisch released on Naxos a few years ago.

As a group the impromptus are beautifully played. In the first, in F Minor, Lewis’s flexible tempo changes enhance the expressiveness, and he is careful to differentiate between dotted rhythms and triplets. The rapid right-hand scale figures of the second, in E?, ripple by under the pianist’s fingers, but seem a little earthy if one has Schnabel’s luminous, pearly sound in one’s memory. The well-known and deservedly beloved G? is played in a simple and understated way, and pedaled beautifully. The Drei Klavierstücke also receive fitting interpretations: the first, in E?-Minor, dark and dramatic; the second and third, multisectioned with a variety of contrasting ideas that the pianist illuminates with different colors.

In sum, Paul Lewis brings strong musicality and an equally strong technique to his Schubert performances. We can look forward eagerly to the next installment.

FANFARE: Susan Kagan


One of the earliest recordings that Paul Lewis made was a fine coupling of Schubert’s last two sonatas, D.959 and D.960. That was back in 2002 (HMC 901800). Thereafter, he turned his attention, at least in the recording studio, to Beethoven, setting down a cycle of the sonatas that was widely praised – and rightly so – followed by a set of the piano concertos, which I admired very much. Now he seems to be returning to Schubert and in addition to partnering Mark Padmore in penetrating accounts of Die schöne Müllerin, Winterreise and Schwanengesang he has resumed his exploration of the solo piano music. He’s already released a pairing of two sonatas, D.784 and D.958, which I have not yet heard (HMA 1951755). Now here is a further generous helping of Schubert.

Three sonatas are offered. D.840, the so-called Reliquie is one of a number of significant scores that Schubert left tantalisingly incomplete – ones that “got away”. Had Schubert completed this C major sonata it might well have rivalled the last three great sonatas in terms of ambition and scale. As it is, what has come down to us is two movements of top-drawer Schubert. Lewis gives a commanding reading of I. It’s an ambitious movement and Lewis shows the stature and reach of the music. The dynamic range of his playing is most impressive, especially the hushed concentration that he brings to some of the quieter passages. In II he achieves a fine range of expression.

The other two sonatas are complete. In his booklet note Roman Hinke describes the material in the first movement of D.850 as “surprisingly boisterous and aggressive”. I’d agree readily with the first of those adjectives but I don’t feel “aggressive” is the mot juste – such a word could rarely be used of Schubert’s music. I think “assertive” would be more appropriate. Lewis gives a performance of brilliance: one which is also full of energy but which doesn’t overlook the subtle nuances. His playing in II is thoughtful and ideally paced. One little cameo detail in this movement caught my ear: between 7:31 and 7:46 there’s a pause followed by a short pp passage; the pause is expertly judged and the pp is exquisite – it’s all the result of scrupulous attention to detail yet it sounds completely natural. In III Lewis’s use of dynamic contrast is marvellous as is the ebb and flow he achieves in the trio. Schubert himself was fairly dismissive of the finale and, in truth, it’s not his most memorable movement but Lewis plays it with elegance. The grace with which he delivers the end of the movement is particularly noteworthy.

He’s just as successful in D.894. I love the seemingly instinctive use of rubato in the glorious chordal main theme of I. The entire performance of this movement is a wonderful experience. The playing is expressive and full of Schubertian give-and-take. However, it’s not simply a case of easy lyricism; Lewis imbues the climaxes with plenty of strength. The second movement is cast in A and B sections and this fine pianist brings suitable power to the B passages while the A sections are delivered with winning lyricism. The two following movements also impress, not least for the light and shade that Lewis imparts in the finale.

As substantial makeweights Lewis offers two favourite collections of smaller-scale pieces. D.899 is anything but a set of salon trifles. As is pointed out in the notes these are Romantic character pieces and Lewis treats them as such. He gives a strong account of the C minor Impromptu and captures the romantic fantasy of the E-flat piece. In the celebrated G-flat Impromptu – my own favourite – there’s a marvellously easy flow, the playing thoughtful and beautifully judged.

The first piece in D.946 opens with surging urgency but the central Andante is elevated and pensive in Lewis’s hands. Every time the opening material of the second piece returns he plays with a limpid grace. This piece, though less than twelve minutes long, encompasses a variety of moods and Lewis responds acutely to each one of them.

This well rounded recital, presented in good, clear sound, confirms the credentials of Paul Lewis as one of the leading pianists of his generation. I loved every minute. It’s technically excellent in execution and packed full of little insights which show how deeply Lewis has thought about the music. I don’t know if a complete Schubert sonata cycle is planned but I hope so. In the meantime this distinguished release demands the attention of lovers of piano music.

-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
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Works on This Recording

Sonata for Piano in G major, D 894/Op. 78 by Franz Schubert
Performer:  Paul Lewis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1826; Vienna, Austria 
Sonata for Piano in D major, D 850/Op. 53 "Gasteiner" by Franz Schubert
Performer:  Paul Lewis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1825; Vienna, Austria 
Sonata for Piano in C major, D 840 "Reliquie" by Franz Schubert
Performer:  Paul Lewis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1825; Vienna, Austria 
Pieces (3) for Piano, D 946 by Franz Schubert
Performer:  Paul Lewis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1828; Vienna, Austria 
Impromptus (4) for Piano, D 899/Op. 90 by Franz Schubert
Performer:  Paul Lewis (Piano)
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1827; Vienna, Austria 

Featured Sound Samples

Piano Sonata in D, D 850 "Gasteiner": III. Scherzo
Piano Sonata in G, D 894: III. Menuetto
Impromptus for Piano, D 899: No 3 in G flat

Customer Reviews

Average Customer Review:  1 Customer Review )
 Exquisite Technique November 14, 2012 By N. Clark (Beverly, MA) See All My Reviews "A great fan of Paul Lewis' Beethoven sonatas, I was overjoyed to see that he had approached the lyrical beauty of Schubert with the same brilliant nuances that speak to the listener with the subliminal voice of pure melodic poetry." Report Abuse
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