TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 21 August 2014
Sometimes when we listen to a recording, and really like it, we search for the reasons why. Perhaps the tempo and dynamics are different enough from what we're used to that we sit up and take notice. Sometimes it's the sound of the recording. Maybe in an opera there’s a soloist we really like. But occasionally, there's a certain indefinable something that grips you when you hear a new release of music you've known for a long time.
That's how I felt when I settled into listening to Paul Lewis' recent release of Schubert's Late Piano Sonatas. I've heard these works scores of times, but something about Lewis' playing on this set connected with me. I'd heard the first of Lewis' three recent Schubert releases on Harmonia Mundi, and very much liked his interpretations of these works. But in the late sonatas, he comes across as powerful and convincing.
Schubert is one of my favorite composers, and his piano music is something I've been listening to for decades. A recording of his final piano sonata, the B Flat Major sonata, D. 960, performed by Maria João Pires, on Erato, was one of the first CDs I ever bought. I've always been fascinated by this work, by its scale and its subtleties.
What's interesting about this set is that Paul Lewis has maintained his style over more than ten years. The first disc of the two here with D. 784 and D. 958 (and not the second, as the liner notes says) was recorded in 2002, and released many years ago on its own. Since Lewis decided to focus more on Schubert, they have bundled it with the final two late sonatas, D. 959 and D. 960.
I'm struck by the violence of his playing. I recall that, when Lewis released his cycle of Beethoven sonatas, one of the criticisms was that he didn't play the music with the strength it sometimes requires. (I disagree; I very much like his Beethoven cycle.) Schubert's music can be violent, but it can also be suave and sinuous, and Lewis is able to modulate his style as necessary, but he certainly doesn't hold back in the more lively sections of the music. His approach to the final D. 960 sonata is tasteful and energetic, and his sound is excellent, and for the other three late sonatas, he shows that he can modulate his energy as needed.
Lewis seems to understand Schubert as few pianists do. Listening to his recordings of these sonatas, one cannot but appreciate his nuanced approach to the works. He's also worked as an accompanist with Mark Padmore in recordings of the three great Schubert song cycles, showing that he can be in the background when necessary; perhaps pianists who accompany singers in Schubert understand the solo piano works more. After all, all of Schubert’s music is song-based.
In addition to this release, there are two other sets available from Harmonia Mundi. The first contains the sonatas D. 840, 859 and 894, along with the Op. 90 Impromptus and the Drei Klavierstücke. The second set contains the Wanderer Fantasy, the Op. 142 Impromptus, sonata D. 845, and the Six Moments Musicaux. It's unfortunate that the Impromptus aren't grouped in the same set, as is often the case, but if you like Lewis' playing, you'll want to get all three sets. I haven't read that Lewis is planning to record any of the other Schubert sonatas, so this may be the final set in his series. There's a total of just under 7 hours of music, and if you like Schubert, I'd strongly recommend it.