Paul Lewis’ current tour constitutes the final instalment of his Schubert cycle. As is the fashion, largely following Artur Schnabel and more recently Alfred Brendel, Lewis plays the last three sonatas as a trilogy, with the D.958 and D.959 played before the interval and the D.960 afterwards. In lesser hands such programming could be a bit of a slog, but Lewis’ subtle pianism invited comparison and connection, he eschewed the pity some pianists ladle over these works, preferring psychodrama writ large, and he mercifully omitted repeats in the D.960.

Paul Lewis
Paul Lewis

Incidentally, these were the works with which Lewis began his recording career almost exactly a decade ago. As such, following his complete survey of the Beethoven sonatas as well as extensive Lieder work with Mark Padmore, it’s appropriate to note just how far Lewis’ Schubert has come from those early discs. Lewis has always been a pianist who refuses to pull music around, and one who, like his peers Brendel and Imogen Cooper, seeks to put the minimum of barriers between listener and composer. But a decade on, Lewis seems less concerned with mere precision and has become more extreme in his gestures, more subtle with his shaping of melody, and more attacking in his vision. Wedding his command of harmonic structure to his deep understanding of this composer’s characteristic blend of ambiguity, conflict, and tragedy, Lewis has become, and proved to be here, a Schubert interpreter of the very highest rank.

Beethoven hung over the D.958, although from Lewis’ shadily abrupt treatment of the declaratory chords (which ape the start of Beethoven’s variations in the same key), it was immediately clear that Schubert’s moods are more translucent than the older composer’s, and more complex. Emotional attack was heightened with the recapitulation repeat, the first theme crisper and the noble second more reflective. The development was a blue fire of instability, Lewis’s dreamy placing of the return to the opening material providing relief from eerie unsteadiness before a disjunctive, freezing coda. The Adagio seemed to take off from Beethoven’s Pathétique, its naïve serenity undone by waves of chromatic instability, cast off with a shrug. (In the entire concert, it was only in this movement, with overly pointed staccato in the left hand during one transformation of the theme, that Lewis attempted anything which seemed unnatural.) There was joviality to the Minuet, without lifting the underlying mood, and whereas some pianists find skittish pranks in the finale Lewis knows that much more is at stake in Schubert’s yet more slippery harmonic progressions. Fracture dominated, Schubert and pianist alike striving to make sense, and if the recapitulation seemed more certain – for the first time in the sonata – it was certain only of a vague direction, not the outcome. Beethovenian this sonata may in some ways be, that uncertainty makes it quite different in others.

The D.959 seems from the outset to be cast in a very different mood, gentler and more elevated. Indeed, in the poised coda to the first movement, its cascading Scherzo, and the airy progress of its concluding song without words, this is a work which smiles much more than the other two sonatas. But as Lewis showed in the intensity of his development in the first movement, and in his retrospectives of more innocent times in the rondo, this remains Schubert on the edge. Nowhere is this more true than in its Andantino, the tormented pivot of the trilogy. With the slightest of delays in the left hand trouble was already brewing in the first section, but the shivery way in which Lewis introduced the central nightmare was truly frightening. Soothed, perhaps, with progressively less jagged interruptions, it was still not clear that the poignant outer material dispelled the horrors of the inner. The sparkle of the two movements that followed seemed almost impossible after this.

Its trills in the bass aside, the D.960 emerged as the least obviously troubled of this late trilogy. (We do well to remember, despite the mortality-probing nature of these works, that this is essentially middle-period Schubert; early death prevented the composer from having anything akin to Beethoven’s late, genre-busting style.) The opening movement was far from restive, its structural challenges easily dealt with by Lewis. Somehow he found a purer tone from his unevenly-tuned Steinway for the Andante sostenuto, and Lewis provided a steadfast account of Schubert’s faithful hopes. The spiky accents of the Scherzo verged on the carefree, and as much as the propulsion of the final movement seemed to herald threats (as in the previous two sonatas), Schubert’s culminating triumphs, such as they are, were easier and less equivocal than elsewhere. However, the atmosphere of tragedy that pervades so much of this composer’s work, and these three sonatas especially, could not be dispelled entirely – indeed, it seemed set in Lewis’ tone. Rightly, there was no encore to three outstanding performances.