At a recent late-night recital, Paul Lewis sat a piano in a penthouse party space and played one of Schubert’s last works, the Sonata in A, D. 959, as if he were consoling everyone in the room over the composer’s early death. At such close quarters, the audience, seated at candlelit café tables, could hear the Steinway’s feline purr and the pianist’s grunts. They could make out the shadows that dappled each glowing note. In larger concert halls, daubs of color merge, and flecks of grit get buffed away. But on recording, despite the artificial perfection of the studio process, Lewis can emulate the unforced intimacy of a private chamber.
Playing the piano is a highly unnatural activity. Musicians torment their tendons and train their fingers to drum on thin slabs of wood, whitened and polished to resemble elephant tusk, which then trigger complicated hammers that thud against wires stretched so taut that they would splinter their casing of bent wood if they were not held in place by a powerful steel frame. The desired result of all this calibrated pressure and elaborate percussion is a fluid, songlike and spontaneous outpouring of the human soul. Anyone who planned such a cumbersome, inefficient process from scratch would seem like a crank. How could it compete with simpler ways of producing music, like humming, thumping an animal skin, or blowing into a tube?
But just listen to Paul Lewis playing Beethoven or Schubert, and suddenly the piano seems like the most direct of instruments. Beethoven’s penultimate sonata, No. 31 in A flat, Op. 110, opens with a tune so tender it could practically be a lullaby, and that is how he shapes it. Without preciousness or melodrama, and with a downy pianissimo, he beguiles the ear into thinking that this is the only way the passage could possibly go. It’s not: Daniel Barenboim, for instance, pauses theatrically after the first A flat major chord, and then goes on to cram so many tempo adjustments, emphases, and expressive hesitations into a few measures that the theme comes out sounding jittery and hung over.
Expression is a gnarled topic in music. Do performers channel their own feelings through their fingers or reenact the emotions of long-dead scribblers who encoded them on the five-line staff? Or do the best somehow manipulate listeners’ emotions by administering the right dose of rubato? How can a performance sound spontaneous when the player knows every millisecond from memory and plays the piece every other night over the course of a month-long tour? And yet somehow, all these shades of volatility, premeditation, decoding, and technique mingle to produce music of imponderable beauty. It’s a kind of alchemy that only a few musicians can execute, almost none as completely as Lewis.
Concert seasons are dominated by a generation of hyper-analytic pianists with diamond-cut technique and a fervent attention to detail. But Lewis doesn’t simulate passion or call attention to his intelligence; he makes the music sound as if it were as thoughtlessly beautiful as a stream flowing over a stone. There’s nothing thoughtless about it, of course. Lewis has studied with Alfred Brendel, but he reminds me more of Artur Schnabel in the straightforward and natural way that he utters a musical phrase. His career has grown at a measured pace, and his repertoire has expanded more slowly still. He rarely touches new music, has a cool relationship with Chopin, and hasn’t been spotted near a Russian score in years. But his complete set of Beethoven sonatas and his survey of Schubert’s late music have made him a specialist in profundity.
Schubert was only 32 when he died, and the last sonatas should by rights have been the opening to decades of unknown marvels, so there’s really no such thing as “late Schubert.” Yet Lewis plays the final sonatas as the observations of a man enriched by a long lifetime’s worth of memories. By turns regretful, vibrant, angry and serene, these pieces seem to speak of death by distilling life to a musical essence. Desperate melancholy is not in fashion these days, but Lewis doesn’t care. He listens to Schubert’s confession and then makes it so utterly his own that it’s hard to listen to the B-flat sonata, D/ 960 without experiencing a stupefying sense of loss. The emotions that Lewis finds in these scores are not always pretty. He gives the final movement of the C-minor sonata (No. 19, D. 958), for example, a snarling, diabolical lilt: It’s a tarantella of the doomed, a gorgeous gallop into the infinite.