by Anthony Kershaw
Oct 18, 2012. Walter Hall, Toronto, ON — I’m glad I checked my email for the concert details the night before. My surprise turned to a smile when I realized that this was an afternoon recital — happily not at Thomson Hall but in the more intimate confines of our university’s Walter Hall. After a quick, panicked email to shuffle a few flute students, I prepared for a lovely afternoon of Schubert Sonatas played by the leading English pianist of his generation, Paul Lewis.
I was not disappointed. Neither was the full hall. The concert had been sold out for some time.
I have been very impressed by Lewis’ recent harmonia mundi recordings of Schubert’s piano music. On record, he seems to be an artist with lofty musical goals — more concerned with balance and textures than full blown virtuosity, much like his mentor Alfred Brendel. But, live, this listener heard so much more.
Lewis is no 19th Century virtuoso, flamboyant and grand. He walks on almost reticently in his plain (and ubiquitous) black shirt and pants, gives a nod, sits, and without a thought, begins his musical journey. No fuss, no muss.
The program is the same has he played many times around the world, Schubert’s last three great piano sonatas. This was his Toronto debut, and a more appreciative, respectful audience you wouldn’t fine anywhere. The lady and gentlemen subscribers to the 115 year old Women’s Musical Club of Toronto were enraptured by this wonderful artist. And, it was so nice to see the 50 or so ‘outreach’ students of a local high school also enjoying Lewis’ artistry.
Lewis’ playing emphasizes perfect balances, clean musical lines, elegance of structure, and strict adherence to dynamics. All these difficulties were easily surmounted in Lewis’ brilliant performances of D958, D959 and D960. The consistency was remarkable and especially satisfying as the Sonatas share so much in the way of form and style.
The three Sonatas were completed by Schubert in September of 1828 and performed by him shortly after. A few weeks later, he was dead. For many years, the Schubert Sonatas were in the very large shadow of Beethoven’s. They have emerged and sit as one of the greatest ‘trilogies’ in piano music.
Lewis treated them as such. Whether the long lines of No. 19’s Adagio, the crafted building blocks of each Sonatas’ opening movement, or the myriad of filigree quiet right hand phrases, Lewis’ musicianship shone. Rarely, have I heard a piano played so quietly, yet every note was heard, balanced beautifully in its comfy chord. And then, his right hand would flick at the notes and the sensation this side of the stage was almost tactile. Brilliant.
And, rests? I loved the silences that help make the structure so compelling in Schubert’s music. They made what preceded and followed incredibly effective. To be fair, this is very difficult to ‘hear’ on Lewis’ recordings, but with Lewis live in the moment and mind of Schubert, superb.
I’m not sure when Lewis will return to Toronto, and he’ll be sold out quickly when he does, but try to hear him live. He’s an amazing, maturing artist, that, once and for all, could put to rest the ghost of Solomon, the last legendary English pianist.