Concerts which are dedicated to one composer are becoming all the more frequent, and it is fantastic to hear a pianist as renowned as Paul Lewis devoting an entire tour to the works of Franz Schubert. It is fair to say that Lewis gave the audience at St George’s his all. An extraordinary performer, Paul Lewis has an international reputation as one of the leading pianists of his generation worldwide. His sensitive touch on the keys enabled the listener to hear each and every note placed with thought and imagination, making a unique interpretation of each of the works.

Paul Lewis
Paul Lewis

Short but sweet, the evening was made up of four pieces. The two Sonatas in A minor, D.784 and D.845, sandwiched the interval, providing the main bulk of the concert, and Lewis opened with German Dances, D.783 and an Allegretto in C minor, D.915, paired together. All the works were pieces written at a time of life that was very difficult for Schubert, when he had been diagnosed with syphilis. These were therefore rather melancholy works, into which the audience was gently eased, with the opening performance of the German Dances and their more spritely feel.

To earn a living as a composer in nineteenth-century Vienna, Schubert owed most of his success to smaller pieces: chiefly dances, of which, over his lifespan, he composed up to around five hundred. The German Dances were written together with a pair of Ecossaises for the carnival season of 1825. The first few dances were lively in comparison to the emotion-fuelled waltz in A minor, conveying a deep sense of yearning. The Allegretto in C minor which was played alongside the dances blended in so well that it was a little hard to hear where it started. The constant fluctuation between major and minor (‘sighing’ phrases) acknowledged that he was into the second piece.

The two sonatas that followed, although both in A minor, demonstrated the versatility of Schubert as a composer within a set form. After the interval, Lewis played Schubert’s first piano sonata to be published in the summer of 1825, D.845. The suppressed and melancholy passion of the first movement was well conveyed by Lewis. He treated every note with caution and care, allowing the second movement to release into the air as though the melody were floating around the room, and then climaxing with the punctuating last chords of the scherzo, putting a full stop to the end of the concert.

The other Sonata in A minor – D.784, performed before the interval – was written earlier (in 1823) and was like experiencing an entire orchestra on the piano. This was the highlight of the concert, where Lewis gave a luscious display of virtuosity and delicacy, of arguably one of Schubert’s most challenging pieces. He made the performance look effortless and played absolutely beautifully despite being faced with huge chords flying across the piano, and a repeat of the main theme in the final bars being played in double octaves, testing his dexterity. The piece was so powerful and elegant it was met with foot-stomping as well as applause. It was a shame that the concert wasn’t longer, but as it was, it felt like an extra-special treat and made each and every precious note all the more memorable.