Monday, February 14, 2011

Review: Paul Lewis, February 13, 2011

Paul Lewis, Piano
Sunday February 13, 3pm
Chicago Symphony Center

All Schubert program:

Piano Sonata in C, D. 840


Three Piano Pieces, D. 946

•E flat Minor: Allegro Assai
•E flat Major: Allegretto
•C Major: Allegro

Sonata in D Major, D. 850

•Allegro vivace
•Con moto
•Scherzo: Allegro vivace
•Rondo: Allegro moderato

Paul Lewis is a pianist I have never seen before. I have never heard any of his recordings. Until I saw the show bill advertising his concerts, I never even heard of his name. He strode to the piano, bowed politely, played, and then sauntered off with a vaguely self-satisfied countenance. At the end of the concert, he was called back four times. In a town where practically every visiting artist gets a standing ovation, he deserved his. Unfortunately, I don't think anyone realized it. 

The "late" Schubert sonata with which Lewis opened his program I've only heard once, in part (ironically). (If you don't already know this, most instrumental sonatas are at least three movements long, and this sonata, composed in 1825, was left incomplete and abandoned when he switched his efforts to composing the A minor sonata, D. 845.) Structurally, the A minor sonata is a shorter, and vastly superior work to D. 840, and one may conjecture that both the higher quality of the A minor sonata andthe fact that the C major sonata were abandoned were because of Schubert's coming to terms with his weakness in dealing with large forms. 

What do we mean by "weakness"? Without getting into a formal analysis, the best way to describe structural weakness is by comparison to something which is structurally sound, or more tautly constructed: A tight piece never leaves you feeling as though there were something left unsaid, or forgotten. You're never left thinking, "My, that little part here was nice, I wish I could have heard it again." In a tight piece, the ideas presented may not be numerous, but they are fully explored. They are allowed to express themselves in the best ways in which they can be expressed, and then the piece comes to a close. 

At the risk of sounding like Corinthians 13, a strong piece never feels like it rambles without cause. A strong piece never repeats itself in the exact same way. A strong piece has both variety and unity. You never get into the movement of a strong piece and think, "This is getting a bit long." 

Paul Lewis opened his program with, structurally, an extremely weak piece. Speaking as a performer, I can tell you that one of the greatest difficulties in projecting a piece like that is in maintaining enough variety in the performance to keep the audience's interest. It requires many skills to sustain interest in music like this, and Lewis' technique is perfectly suited to this music. His understanding of registration (using the different acoustic properties of the different registers of the piano), balance and color makes him possibly one of the best performers to assign a work like this. As a listener, however, I didn't get a strong sense of a personality which went beyond the clear phrasing, sharply outlined and subtly shifting colors, and warmth. It might have been that his concert presence wasn't sufficient to command the attention necessary in these pieces. It may have been that he was simply off his concentration that afternoon. (It can be hard to get "geared up" for a 3pm Sunday afternoon performance.) Whatever it was, one of my first thoughts after hearing D. 840 was, "His kind of skill is wasted on that piece. He'd get much better results playing Debussy or late Beethoven or even Chopin with control like that." 

The D major sonata had delightful moments in its composition, and was overall a more successful (emphasis on more) work, but it still suffered from the same sort of weaknesses as the C major sonata: Long windedness, excess repetition, etc. 

This concert season Lewis is presenting all of the "mature" Schubert piano works, and in my opinion, it's a very noble experiment. (Prohibition reference intended.) No great artist living or dead whom I can recall has attempted such a thing, and perhaps this is telling. Perhaps the reason Schubert left D. 840, at least eight other piano sonatas, a symphony and innumerable other works spread out over the course of his life all incomplete is because he was finding himself writing music that doesn't "work" and couldn't be successfully performed in completion. Like the three-minute mile, maybe projecting these pieces successfully can't be done. 

The greatest challenge in performing the large works of Schubert is in making a performance which overcomes the weaknesses of the works themselves. In the three short pieces, and in the better constructed shorter movements of the sonatas, Lewis was as perfect as could be. But as skilled as he was, he didn't have it in him to hold the unwieldiest parts of these sonatas together. To be frank, I don't know who could.