Last week, when I wrote about pianist Paul Lewis’ plans for an American tour, I observed that he had shifted his focus of attention from Ludwig van Beethoven to Franz Schubert. I summarized his Schubert accomplishments as follows:
He now seems to be shifting his recording interests back to Franz Schubert, a composer who has attracted his attention at least since 2003, when he recorded Schubert’s “final year” sonatas, D. 959 in A major and D. 960 in B-flat major. His latest recorded offering, to be released in November, is a 2-CD set including three sonatas, D. 840 in C major, D. 850 in D major, and D. 894 in G major (sometimes called the “fantasia” sonata). This recording will also include the first set of impromptus (D. 899) and the three D. 946 pieces, called impromptus by Otto Erich Deutsch, also from Schubert’s final year.
According to Amazon.com, this new harmonia mundi recording is scheduled for release on November 8, and the Web page set up for it has now been configured to accept pre-orders. If the earlier recording of D. 959 and D. 960 was impressive just on the grounds that everything from Schubert’s final year was impressive, this new release shines with the different lights that reflect the diversity of what the mature Schubert could do behind a piano keyboard.
Of the three sonatas D. 894 is decidedly the most striking, particularly for the extended prolongation of its first movement. In a recent performance that he gave in San Francisco, the pianist Thomas Schultz observed that Schubert’s “Great” C major symphony (D. 944) was initially poorly received, primarily because both the performers and the audience found it too repetitious (particularly in its final movement). Repetition is not a problem in D. 894, particularly in Lewis’ execution. The score abounds with repetitions ranging from individual motifs to entire “sentences;” but Lewis is convincing us as listeners that this is all part of a grand game that Schubert is playing with time itself. While there is never absence of a metric pulse, time is not experienced “as it is measured” but evolves out of more fundamental relations of what-comes-before and what-comes-after. (About a century later Edmund Husserl would be arguing in his lectures that these are the primitives of “time consciousness” itself.)
D. 894 was far from the first time Schubert tried to play such games with time. There are signs of it in just about every Andante movement in this 2-CD set; and Lewis always seeks out means to endow each one of them with its own set of characteristic traits. What distinguishes D. 894 is the skill with which Schubert plays his game over the entire sonata, even to the subtleties of transition from one movement to its successor (as what-comes-before moves into what-comes after). We also get a strong appreciation of his inventiveness with time in D. 840. While this sonata has only two movements, they both unfold through relatively generous prolongations.
Such unfolding is also experienced in what should have been some of Schubert’s shorter endeavors. However, the first of the D. 899 impromptus is practically an opening sonata movement in its own right, while the Allegretto of D. 946 sets up expectations for a rather innocuous ternary form and then gets wrapped up in a far more extended rondo. Thus, even in these ostensibly “short-form” pieces, Schubert is still at it, playing his games with time.
What makes Lewis’ performances interesting is that he always seems to be on to those games. He approaches them neither as a “team player” nor as an “opponent.” One might almost say that he takes them as incentive to play games of his own. This is not to say that he betrays those “rules” laid down by the marks on the score pages. Rather, he treats each Schubert composition as a flight of fancy and then allows his own personal fancy to take flight, subject to the constraints of what is in the notation. The result is a collection of highly compelling interpretations of some of Schubert’s most fascinating compositions.