Recording of the Week,
Paul Lewis plays early Schubert and Weber
A year on from his eloquent accounts of sonatas which Haydn composed in late middle-age, Paul Lewis fast-forwards to the early nineteenth century with youthful works by two near-contemporaries who would not live to see 40: Schubert’s D575 from 1817 and Weber’s Second Piano Sonata of 1814.
The British pianist has an impressive track-record in Schubert (his discography includes towering interpretations of the three great song-cycles with Mark Padmore as well as introspective readings of the three late sonatas which echo the poetry of his mentor Alfred Brendel), and his approach to this much earlier work is suffused with lightly-worn awareness of what was to come. Time and again, Lewis subtly reminds us that we’re in the company of a frustrated young man on the cusp of greatness, and the entire reading radiates affection, anticipation and even a shade of quasi-paternal pride. He endows the assertive opening motif with all the confidence of youth, and when the 20-year-old Schubert strikes out into harmonic pastures new at the beginning of the first movement’s development section, Lewis’s halting rubato gently advises that we buckle up for an exciting ride. His treatment of repeats, too, contributes to the impression of a young composer finding his feet – if the first statement of material is often accorded relatively plain treatment (almost as if Schubert is simply getting his ideas down on paper), the return visit explores its expressive potential through imperceptible shifts in phrasing and emphasis. It’s magical stuff.
The Weber sonata (composed three years earlier than the Schubert, and almost a decade before the two composers’ paths eventually crossed) is an inspired pairing, if on the face of it a marginally less inspired work in its own right – both pieces offer a fascinating snapshot of the keyboard sonata at the crossroads of Classicism and Romanticism, but whereas the Schubert sonata shows a composer in the process of figuring out where he might take the genre in the coming years, there’s a sense that many of Weber’s nascent ideas will eventually play out in other hands as he himself ploughs other compositional furrows. (Der Freischütz was seven years around the corner at this point, though Weber already had the two wonderful clarinet concertos under his belt, and indeed some of the figurations here bear the imprint of his writing for that instrument).
But it’s a tremendously attractive work on its own terms, and Lewis’s poetic imagination and matchless ability to spin a cantabile line shine the warmest of spotlights on its charms – the influence of opera is never very far away (pointing not only to Weber’s own future, but perhaps also his fiancée Caroline Brandt, a soubrette who was enjoying huge success in Nicolas Isouard’s Cendrillon), and Lewis’s bel canto suppleness in the long arabesques of the first movement would rival that of a Giuditta Pasta or an Isabella Colbran, both of whom were poised to take the operatic world by storm at the time.
As in the Schubert, Lewis has a marvellous knack of flagging up the little acorns from which great oaks would eventually grow: in his hands, the gentle A flat Barcarolle at the opening of the piece acquires a poetry worthy of Chopin, and a charming little motif which paves the way for Schubert’s own Der Musensohn (1822) is subtly drawn out of the rather busy texture. He also negotiates the work’s potential weak spots with sympathy and imagination, not least a stormy first-movement development section full of sound and fury where Weber teeters on the brink of something Beethovenian but somehow never quite finds the words (or, more accurately, the chromatic language) to bring it to fruition. The variety of touch which Lewis finds in a passage which could come across as turgidly overwritten is quite a marvel, adding colours and texture where harmonic invention momentarily stalls. Most crucially, everything dances: there are moments where the piece sounds like an early draft for Weber’s hugely popular Invitation to the Dance (then five years away), and in the almost symphonic scherzo as well as the utterly charming final rondo one feels that same Terpsichorean appeal being issued here.