Paul Lewis presented a fascinating recital programme on Thursday which made clear that this son of a Liverpudlian docker is not just a formidable pianist but a musician of searching intellect. Schubert, Brahms and Liszt (their lives neatly spanning a century) provided a focus for an exploration of works sharing an idiosyncratic, not to say experimental, approach to structure, and ripe for interpretation. There are, of course, strong links between Schubert and Liszt, as in the latter’s transcription of some 60 songs and his two transcriptions of Schubert “Wanderer” Fantasy.

Paul Lewis © Jack Liebeck
Paul Lewis
© Jack Liebeck

Part of Lewis’ strategy was evident in Schubert’s Sonata in B major D575 – one of six written during 1817 and the only one of that year to have four movements. Possibly an odd choice for a recital with its limited dramatic and emotional range, it is, nonetheless, intriguing for its tonal contrasts. Under Lewis’ hands the first movement’s far-out harmonic juxtapositions and abrupt modulations made perfect sense, and the individual character of its themes were given distinctive outline, with weight of tone carefully differentiated. Clarity of articulation marked the central movements played here with the sensitivity and attention to detail that we now expect from this veteran Schubert performer, one who – like his mentor Alfred Brendel – has pursued the Classical repertoire before venturing into Brahms and Liszt. By the time we reached the concluding Allegro giusto, the work had all the appearance of a series of character pieces, foreshadowing similar works by Schumann, despite being clothed in the formal outlines of a sonata. This movement also served to remind us that until only 50 years ago Schubert was regarded as an inoffensive composer of salon music.

Brahms' Four Ballades came next, and while they have less of Chopin’s bravura about them, Lewis brought out their individual character with no lack of drama. Barely pausing between each one, these ballades were presented almost in an unbroken span as if to suggest a single work in four movements. There was plenty of passion and thunderous tone in the central panel of the first, and in the shifting clouds of the second a clear melodic line emerged, despite the challenges of the spread chords. The third was suitably pugnacious with plenty of impetus in its galloping rhythms, yet its airy central section, leisurely paced and generously pedalled, conjured images of Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit 60 odd years in advance of its conception. A haunting beauty inhabited the fourth, tender and dream-like, Lewis bringing out a sense of Autumn bonfires, as if giving a preview of the Three Intermezzi, Op.117.

The quiet eloquence of these Intermezzi began the evening’s second half. Lewis’ delicate touch perfectly caught their pervading nostalgia, with just the slightest lingering in the first. The second was exquisite, heart-easing in its poetic tenderness, while the third seemed rather too matter-of-fact for a movement which Brahms once described as a “lullaby to my sorrows”.

With the minimum of delay Lewis then launched into Liszt’s virtuosic Après une lecture du Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata. This vivid portrait of hell inspired by Dante’s Inferno is the final piece in the composer’s Années de pèlerinage. Its psychological trauma through to the blessing of paradise were traversed with astonishing dexterity; homicidal speeds dashed off with breathtaking power and accuracy. Authority, excitement, and beauty were all there in spades, his technique appeared to sweep aside all technical obstacles, leaving my neighbour afterwards virtually speechless. Beethoven and Schubert may have been Lewis’ calling card for many years, now his Liszt is equally compelling and totally assured. To misquote lines from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “He came, he played, he conquered”.