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British pianist Paul Lewis completes his Schubert series on harmonia mundi

Cover of the recording being discussed
courtesy of harmonia mundi

Over the last three years, British pianist Paul Lewis has been involved in a project of recording major compositions by Franz Schubert through a series of two-CD releases on the harmonia mundi label. The first of these was released on November 8, 2011. It presented three major sonatas, D. 840 in C major, D. 850 in D major, and. 894 in G major (sometimes called the “fantasia” sonata), along with the first set of impromptus (D. 899) and the three D. 946 pieces, which were published only in 1868 after having been edited (anonymously) by Johannes Brahms. The second release came out on October 9, 2012. This collection presented only one sonata, D. 845 in A minor. It also included the second set of impromptus (D. 935), the earlier D. 780 set of six short pieces called “Moments Musicaux,” and the D. 915 Allegretto movement in C minor.

The third and final two-CD set in this series is scheduled for release on May 13 but is currently available for pre-order from Amazon.com. This consists entirely of the four “late” sonatas: D. 784 in A minor, D. 958 in C minor, D. 959 in A major, and D. 960 in B-flat major. The last three of these were all composed (in what must have been a feverish burst of activity) in September of 1828, only months before Schubert’s death. They were his final large-scale compositions. It is also worth noting that, during the 2012-2013 concert season, Lewis was giving recital programs in which he was performing all three of these sonatas. However, I should also note that the recordings of the last two sonatas are a reissue of a recording I had previously discussed in December of 2012.

Taken as a whole, this third collection will put the cap on a truly adventurous project. Each of the four sonatas is revelatory, not only in Schubert’s capacity to work so well with extended duration but also in the composer’s always-daring approaches to harmonic progression involving modulations into distant territories from which he always finds a sure path back to his tonic. Combined with the bold rhetoric of his frequently uneven rhythmic patterns, the listener cannot fail to recognize that, in the “evolutionary chain” of creative musical composition, Schubert is the undisputed descendant of Ludwig van Beethoven, going to boundaries that Beethoven established and pushing them beyond the wildest dreams of his contemporaries.

All this is presented with crystalline clarity through Lewis’ impeccable command of execution. Listening to him perform any one of these large scale compositions, one is easily convinced that he holds the entirety of the work in his mind while his fingers ably navigate the path from beginning to end. More than that, however, one can imagine that he can also hold all of September of 1828 in his mind, all the ideas that needed to be expressed and the urgency with which Schubert developed them through his own hands and committed them to paper.

For those who know their Schubert, the entirety of this collection cannot be ignored; for those less familiar with the composer, I cannot imagine a better way to become acquainted with him.