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Human, all too human

As he releases his new CD of Schubert Piano Sonatas and prepares to take them on the road, 20 years after his last Schubert series, Paul Lewis explains why the composer’s work resonates now more than ever


With Schubert, I started on the dark side. The first sonata I played as a teenager was the A minor D784. It’s one of his pivotal sonatas, written around the time he got his syphilis diagnosis. In the wake of that death sentence, everything became bleak. That’s the core of his message. The change of his style and musical language was immediate and shocking. That was my introduction to Schubert – I didn’t start with the cosy, early music – so he has always been essentially a dark composer for me.

I’ve always been struck by his lack of answers. With Beethoven, there are questions, but he almost always creates some sense of resolution. That’s rarely the case with Schubert. And yet there’s also a sense of hope. For me, that makes him the most human of all composers – especially now, when we don’t have answers to very much.


‘There are so many things going on and the challenge is to control these and achieve the balance you’re looking for’


His music has so many layers of emotion – the surface ones, but many others just beneath that. It’s the same with the piano writing – there are so many things going on and the challenge is to control these and achieve the balance you’re looking for. His writing can be quite awkward and not very pianistic. There’s a famous story that he had his friends round and tried to play the Wanderer Fantasy but broke down, gave up and said, ‘Let the devil play it.’ I don’t think he necessarily had the ability to play to the level of technical difficulty of his music, but I imagine he had a fantastic ability to control levels of pianissimo, with a high level of touch control.

With Schubert, more than with any other composer, the condition of the piano is crucial. You need an instrument that will help you play infinite levels of pianissimo. You want to go down to an almost imperceptible volume, but to keep the core of the sound – a whisper that somehow gets to the back of the hall. It’s difficult to achieve that with a piano that’s set up to be powerful and bright, for playing Rachmaninoff in a 3,000-seat hall. You need something more subtle, with an even left pedal voicing that allows you to play incredibly softly, without skating on the surface of the keys. You have to play into the keys, pressing them down very slowly but with the notes still sounding. That depends on how the action has been set up. For my recording I used a Steinway Model D in Flagey, and Thomas Hübsch, the Berlin Philharmonie’s piano technician, spent a day working on it.


‘You’re dealing with tiny gradations of sound, colour and character, but they’re so significant. They set up the whole character of a piece’


Alfred Brendel was a huge influence in my understanding of Schubert. When I played to him in the 1990s, he opened new doors in terms of how to think about this music. His lessons are still vivid, even at this point. I’m not sure how much I took on board immediately, but these things take time to process and to translate into your own musical thinking and language. I remember playing him the G major Sonata D894. We spent a lot of time balancing the opening – you can do that endlessly, balancing the chords, colouring each individual voice. You’re dealing with tiny gradations of sound, colour and character, but they’re so significant. They set up the whole character of a piece.

The sonatas on this CD are all earlyish works. The A minor D537 is a precursor to the later A minor sonatas. It doesn’t have the sense of distress or bleakness or even anger of those, but all the ingredients are there. It’s interesting that the slow movement theme is the same he uses in the last movement of the great A major D959. Obviously, this was a theme that meant something to him. It has the sense of intimacy and introspection that you instantly recognise as being Schubert. It’s hard to define what that is, though – maybe it’s a sense that it doesn’t project itself out to you but draws you in.

The E flat sonata D568 is an incredibly beautiful, lyrical piece. It doesn’t have the storm clouds or the particular depth you have in the later sonatas, but it’s a big piece, on a grand scale, and it has all the ingredients of what would become dark in his music later on. There’s a sense of longing, ‘sehnsucht’, which turned into something a little bit more desperate later on, but is merely nostalgic in the early pieces.

The ‘little’ A major D664 is probably one of his best-known sonatas. I played it 20 years ago when I did my last sonata series and haven’t played it since. Back then, it was my least favorite Schubert Sonata, probably because it’s so popular and I didn’t see the depth in it. Coming back to it, I see what I missed first time around – it is a pleasure to play.


‘When you let music rest and live your life, experiencing things and playing other music, it all feeds in and influences your interpretation’


It’s 20 years since I gave my first Schubert series, and everything is different, somehow. When you come back to something you haven’t played for a long time, you see things in a different way, in a different balance. When you let music rest and live your life, experiencing things and playing other music, it all feeds in and influences your interpretation. When I played these sonatas 20 years ago at the Wigmore Hall, we recorded them for posterity. There are some good things in these recordings, but from this perspective, aged 50, looking back to 30-year-old me, I hear a blandness. At this point in my life, I see so much more detail in the music, including the richness of the expressive detail that perhaps I missed 20 years ago.

Maybe that’s the learning process. When I study a new piece these days, it takes much longer than it did all those years ago. I remember learning Liszt’s Dante Sonata when I was 15 and playing it in a concert two weeks later. That’s not long to get under the notes. I have a recording of my performance and, of course, there’s so much missing in terms of expression and detail. When you’re younger, you’re at the start of that learning process, and it takes a lifetime to get under the skin of these great works. There are endless possibilities to unearth and it simply takes time.


‘Performing a series is an indulgence. It’s a chance to spend lots of time with music that you love’


Performing a series is an indulgence. It’s a chance to spend lots of time with music that you love. People talk about series being definitive, but I don’t think that’s ever the case. It is always just a particular journey within the output of a composer’s work. Schubert piano sonatas show us so many things, many of which are fundamental to what he expresses, but it can’t be everything because it lacks the human voice, which is probably the most fundamental part of Schubert’s work. You have to know his songs intimately and to bring that knowledge, because there are so many cross-references, so many ways that the lieder and the sound of the human voice feed into his piano sonatas.

Even across a series, my interpretations change a lot. The piano is a big factor, as well as the hall – subconsciously, you’re always adapting to what you’re hearing and the feedback. Every time I play a concert, I treat it as a lesson. I go back the next day and think it all through wondering, ‘What can I do to improve this?’ You comb through everything and try to be your own best teacher. It’s always changing. Every concert experience is a step in the process.


Paul Lewis’s new CD of Schubert Sonatas D537, 568 and 664 is released on 28 October on Harmonia Mundi.


Paul Lewis on Tour

Amici della Musica, Florence, 19 November

Palau de la Música, Barcelona, 21 November

Oslo Opera House, Oslo, 27 November

Turner Sims, Southampton, 29 November

Wigmore Hall, London, 30 November & 2 December

Saffron Hall, Saffron Walden, 6 January

St George’s, Bristol, 27 January 2023

Chipping Campden Festival, 28 January

Perth Concert Hall, Scotland, 31 January

Melbourne Recital Centre (parts 1&2), Melbourne, 3 & 7 February

UKARIA Cultural Centre (parts 1&2), Adelaide, 4 & 5 February

Kumho Cultural Foundation (part 2), Seoul, 9 February

Singapore Symphony Orchestra (Mozart), Singapore, 16 & 17 February

University of Hong Kong (parts 1&2), Hong Kong, 24 February & 25 February

National Concert Hall, Dublin, 24 April