Classical Sessions

Paul Lewis: Confronting Schubert's NightmareWGBH-FM

Pianist Paul Lewis came to Boston to make his recital debut on Jan. 12. The evening before, at this performance he gave at WGBH's Fraser Performance Studio, he told the audience he suddenly realized there was a certain magic in that date. It had been exactly 20 years earlier — Jan. 12, 1993 — when the great pianist Alfred Brendel came to London's Guildhall School of Music & Drama to do a master class. "I thought he'd tell me to do something else with my life," Lewis remembered with a laugh. But that first encounter marked the beginning of a long relationship. "He's given me," Lewis said, "an awful lot to think about."

The Liverpool-born pianist is 41 now, strikingly handsome with a gentle presence, penetrating eyes and a quick wit. He possesses a quiet kind of power in the way he speaks about music — especially by Franz Schubert.

Lewis is fascinated by the way Schubert's music changed after the composer contracted syphilis. Lewis has focused on the pieces Schubert wrote in his last six years, with the specter of death never far away. In Boston, Lewis played Schubert's three final sonatas — the sprawling, transcendent trilogy that navigates its way through every unspeakable aspect of life and death. Lewis thinks of the first sonata as "pursued." The second is a "coming to terms" that moves through bleakness and nostalgia — and absolute terror. And the final sonata rises above the anguish.

In this performance, Lewis plays the slow movement of the middle sonata. The music at the outset is haunting.

"It's got a swing to it, but it swings in a slightly sinister way," Lewis says. "There's a feeling of something about to explode beneath the surface ... And it certainly does in the middle section, which is one of the most bizarre and anarchic explosions in all of music. And you end up, toward the end of that section, with these very abrupt fortissimo chords followed by silence. And to me, that feels like you're having your worst nightmare — and you sit bolt upright in bed and open your eyes. And you wake up from it, but then you realize that, actually, the nightmare is reality."

Program:
  • Schubert: Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major, D. 959 - 'Andantino'

Paul Lewis, piano

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