February 2013

Arts & Letters

Sleepwalking with Schubert

By Anna Goldsworthy
Paul Lewis. © Pia Johnson
Paul Lewis

What is it about Schubert? There are so many composers to love. And so many ways to love them. Mozart: in your blood, that narcotic joy. Bach: the brainwaves flowing to theta. Beethoven: an enlargement of the musculature, and the mind. And then there’s Schubert: straight to the tear ducts. It’s a maudlin response to music that’s anything but.

Born in Vienna in 1797, Schubert was a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral. The following year, at age 31, he was buried beside him. He only ever gave one public recital; much of his music remained unpublished during his lifetime. Yet he produced the most astonishing series of masterworks, heard first by a small group of his friends, and then years later, after his death, by a lot more people. Since 2011, the Liverpool-born pianist Paul Lewis has been engaged in a ‘Schubert project’, performing the piano works of the composer’s final six years throughout Europe and the United States. I caught up with Lewis last October, when he brought two of these recitals to Melbourne.

What is it about Schubert? “I’ve always thought that Beethoven builds and poses questions along the way, and then provides answers at the end,” Lewis offers. “Whereas Schubert almost never provides the answers. There are always more questions than answers. And I like that, because it’s a reflection of what we find in life.”

Australian audiences first heard Lewis perform as a soloist in 2006, when he appeared for Musica Viva. In Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, there was a dislocation between his boyish, unassuming stage presence, and the formidable, controlled readings issuing from the piano. His program surveyed four Beethoven sonatas, beginning with the very first in F minor, and concluding with the great mid-period Appassionata, also in F minor. Unlike the flamboyant Chinese pianist Lang Lang, who has become an ambassador for classical piano, Lewis had a loftiness to his playing, a sobriety that recalled his mentor, Alfred Brendel (which is not to say it lacked humour). His performance was unfailingly beautiful, not because of gleaming surfaces or a particular voluptuousness of sound, but because of its formal clarity. Other interpretations of the Appassionata might offer greater immediacy – more struggle, more sweat, more humanness – but this provided a different vantage point, as it laid out the architectural grandeur of this work, alongside its proto-Impressionism.

Opinion at interval was divided. “Some might feel this is not the way to play Beethoven,” remarked a senior colleague, “but it is certainly a way.”

Six and a half years later, Lewis returned to Melbourne with a way of playing Schubert. The second of his October recitals operated as an excavation of Schubert’s late style, beginning with the German Dances, D783, as a type of premise, and then moving through the intimacies and ambivalences of the Moments Musicaux, D780. After interval, Lewis delved into the great Sonata No. 16 in A minor, D845. Much of his playing was as I remembered it: the classicism, the sincerity – never a false note or artificially sweetened phrase – and the engagement with deep structure. But in the A minor sonata there was also an emotional extremis that I did not remember from his Beethoven project, a sense of struggle that came to feel apocalyptic.

“After the concert last night, someone asked me So what kind of man is Schubert, then?” Lewis tells me. “Well, I don’t know. A lot of people try to work out the personality of the composer and see how it informs the music, but I think the other way round is just as valid. There is this unassuming stereotype of Schubert, that he was a bit of a goose, shy and retiring, but the music suggests something quite different. There’s a strength of conviction in there, so whatever he may have been on the outside, on the inside he must have been very sure about what he wanted and what he felt.”

It is a curious thing, musical style. Performers aspire to ‘stylistic’ performances, seeking the mother tongue of each composer. And yet how easily it becomes a straitjacket. How easy it becomes to reduce a composer to a vocabulary, and stop listening. As if each composer could only tell one story; as if each bird had only one song.

There is a received version of Schubert as Beethoven’s enfeebled twin – formally inferior, dreamy, designed for the salon – but Lewis’s robust reading of D845 refuted this. “I think Schubert is more internally stormy than Beethoven, which perhaps makes it all the more powerful. In a work like this, there’s no escape from it. He doesn’t provide any. Along the way there’s contrast and some light, but at the end you’re just ploughing into the abyss.”

Now aged 40, and the father of three children, Lewis still cuts a boyish figure on stage, but up close you detect a veteran’s weariness. Touring pianists, like US presidents, accrue years at a different rate to the rest of us, less due to the vicissitudes of travel than to a particular intensity of existence. “Going back ten years, when I played a Schubert sonata series, I was single, and it was like having one of those love–hate relationships. When you’re involving yourself with something that’s so dark and intense, and so terrifying in many ways, it’s the struggle of working out how to get that across to an audience in a concert situation, without feeling destroyed by it.”

It is the great paradox at the centre of any artistic practice: that marriage of abandon and control. “These days I’m thinking of enough technical things to keep me one side of being too affected by it, because you just can’t. You still have to go there, but you also have to know how you’re going to step back from it in two hours’ time.”

Lewis’ debut recording for Harmonia Mundi was of Schubert sonatas (D958 and D784), and all the hallmarks of his later playing are there: the command, the classicism, the architectural clarity. And yet there is a greater authority to his 2011 recording of Schubert piano works, also for Harmonia Mundi, as if he feels more confident bringing his listener to the abyss. Like Schubert, Lewis remains “very sure about what he wanted and what he felt”.

Locating this certainty is more of a challenge in Schubert than in Beethoven. Schubert’s arguments are less watertight; he is more prone to digress. “There is such logic to Beethoven,” Lewis agrees, “and I would not claim that there is no logic to Schubert, but most of it seems to be instinct. It’s instinct that comes from somewhere inside. You find your way to it.”

When I misquote Alfred Brendel – “Schubert moves with the grace of a sleepwalker” – Lewis gently corrects me. “The Brendel quote is Schubert moves with the assurance of a sleepwalker. Because it suggests he knows exactly where he is going, that there’s only one way he could go.”

This month Lewis returns to the Melbourne Recital Centre to complete his Schubert project, performing the last three sonatas. It is an enormous program, one and a half times the standard recital length, and tremendously taxing on every level: physically, intellectually, emotionally. Doubtless it will earn him some more grey hairs; doubtless it will be worth it. “The last three are the most wonderful collection of pieces. There’s something different about them. People describe the B flat sonata as having a valedictory quality, but I find it difficult to understand as that. I think it’s more an expression of hope, or acceptance, somehow. So we’ve had all this trouble. Do we have any other choice other than just to try and live with it?”

What is it about Schubert? There is the youth, preserved forever in the music, as in amber. And there is the mortality, which he regards in these final sonatas with a child’s level gaze. And sings and dances anyway.

Lewis’ might be only one way of playing Schubert but for the duration of a concert – such is the thoughtfulness, such is the assurance – it becomes the only way, the alternatives silenced.

Anna Goldsworthy

Anna Goldsworthy is a writer and a pianist. Her most recent book is Melting Moments, and her most recent album is Trio Through Time.

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