Paul Lewis spent much of the two-year period from 2011 to 2013 performing and recording the late piano music of Franz Schubert, focusing on pieces written during the last six years of Schubert's life, from 1822 to 1828. After previous instalments in the series which included various sonatas and other pieces such as the 'Wanderer' Fantasy and the Impromptus, we now have a new volume of four sonatas, including the final three which were written in the last months of Schubert's life.
The significance of the chosen time period is that it was in 1822 that Schubert contracted syphilis, and for Lewis this marked a complete change in the composer's musical voice. You can hear this, I think, in the A minor Sonata D784, composed in February 1823, and therefore the first of the sonatas to be written after his diagnosis. Although usually when one thinks of the late Schubert piano sonatas, it's often just the final three that come to mind, I'm glad that Lewis has also included this sonata, as it's a wonderful piece, full of tragic, poignant nobility.
He really brings out the heaving turmoil that is present from the very first bar, and his playing acquires an appropriately heavy tread in the initial statement of the first movement's principal theme. A good proportion of this movement is in bare, unharmonised octaves, and Lewis plays up this bleakness to great effect. It's a powerfully affecting performance.
Alfred Brendel, Lewis's mentor and a renowned Schubert interpreter in his own right, described the Sonata in C minor D958 as “the most neurotic sonata Schubert wrote”, and that is an aspect that Lewis seems not afraid to confront, notably in the last movement, a kind of nightmarish tarantella. Furthermore, his way with rubato in the first movement is quite magical, and his always-thoughtful dynamics and phrasing highlight the unexpected harmonic twists and turns that Schubert throws at the listener.
The range of colours that Lewis draws from one bar to the next is superb; soft, tender lyricism seamlessly giving way to crisp, immaculately clean passagework. In the Adagio second movement, Lewis judges the transitions back and forth between the sublime opening melody and the somewhat stormier sections perfectly.
While there's no doubt about the virtuosity and authority of Lewis's playing, there's certainly nothing superficially flashy about his performance either. I remember reading an interview with him in which he mentioned that when he attends concerts, he sometimes feels the focus is more on the performer rather than the music they are playing, noting that this is something he is constantly at pains to avoid. I definitely feel he has achieved that here: throughout these sonatas I sensed a deeply considered performance where the primary concern was merely letting this extraordinary music speak for itself.
The set is completed with a second disc containing Lewis's previous recordings (from 2002) of the final two sonatas, D959 and D960. Although one might argue that it would have been nice to have had new recordings of these as well, I can understand why Lewis didn't feel the need to do so, as these are fine performances, particularly of D960, where he beautifully captures the serenity of the first movement. In any case, the album has been priced as if it were just a single disc, so especially if you don't already own the final two sonatas, this is an absolute bargain, with masterful recordings of all four works. Thoroughly recommended!