Last night pianist Paul Lewis returned to Herbst Theatre to give his second recital for San Francisco Performances (SFP). He has been away for about ten years, since his SFP debut took place in 2006. San Francisco audiences thus had to choose between seeking out his performances elsewhere or resting content with his ambitious recording projects for harmonia mundi. On the latter front Lewis was devoting much of his attention to the late piano works of Franz Schubert, releasing three two-CD sets that covered, along with other shorter selections, piano sonatas that Schubert composed between April of 1825 (D. 840 in C major) and September of 1828 (D. 960 in B-flat major), about two months before his death.
Lewis now seems to have shifted his attention to the other end of Schubert’s life. D. 575 in B major was composed in August of 1817 when Schubert was twenty years old. It marked the end of a frustrating year, during which Schubert left his parents’ home to try to make a career as a freelance composer. By the fall of 1817 Schubert was back with his family assisting his schoolteacher father. Of the sonatas that Schubert composed during this period, complete and incomplete, the best known is probably D. 537 in A minor, composed in March of 1817. However, none of that music was ever published during Schubert’s lifetime.
D. 575 was definitely a shrewd choice on Lewis’ part. It is an impressive example of how adventurous Schubert could be at the age of twenty. His is already displaying highly imaginative approaches to harmonic progression, modulating into regions that seem surprising but always come up with a path back to the tonic. His approaches to rhythm also lead into unexpected twists and turns, some of that twisting coming from any ankle foolish enough to try to tap out the beat. In the Scherzo movement Schubert establishes himself as a continuation of the line established by Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven that appreciated the rhetorical impact of full-stop silence. (In the Scherzo the silence lasts for more than a measure, and Lewis knew just how to hold the listening audience in suspense.) Taken as a whole, the four-movement experience was a bold assertion of a new compositional voice; and it is typical of status quo thinking that Vienna was just not ready to listen to that voice,
The remainder of Lewis’ program was shared by Johannes Brahms and Franz Liszt, making for a bold juxtaposition of polar opposites. Brahms was represented by compositions from both ends of his life, the four Opus 10 ballades, which he composed in the summer of 1854 at the age of 21 (thus almost the same as age Schubert at the time of D. 575) and the three Opus 117 intermezzi composed in the summer of 1892, when Brahms was 59. Opus 10 has a particularly interesting context, since it was composed shortly after Robert Schumann had attempted suicide and then committed himself to an asylum.
For further context it is worth recalling that Frédéric Chopin composed the last of his four ballades in 1842, revising it in 1843. However, while for Chopin the ballade seemed little more than a prop for highly (excessively?) embellished fantasizing within a roughly da capo structure, Brahms seemed more interested in the literary connection to the term. That connection had less to do with a predictable strophic structure and more with the role it played in unfolding a narrative. One might almost say that each of the Opus 10 ballades captures the voice of a storyteller without every committing to the sort of story being told. The result is an intense sense of the dramatic in each of these four short pieces, a tension that may have reflected the state of Brahms’ mind in the face of Schumann’s fate.
From that point of view, it is worth noting that there may be a suggestion of Schumann’s ghost in Opus 117, at least in the outer two of the three pieces. Both of these are distinguished by having a melodic line that sits between accompanying themes in both the bass and treble lines. Schumann had taken a similar approach in the last of the four short pieces of his Opus 113, which he called “Märchenbilder” (fairy tale pictures), inserting the viola line between the right and left hands of the keyboard accompaniment. Thus, even when he was pushing 60, Brahms could still look back on Schumann and recall those better days when he introduced himself to Schumann at the age of twenty.
The intensity through brevity that Brahms could summon in both Opus 10 and Opus 117 were sharply complemented by Lewis’ final selection, “Après une lecture du Dante, fantasia quasi sonata,” the final piece in the second (Italy) book of Années de pèlerinage (years of pilgrimage) by Franz Liszt. Liszt took his title (after a reading of Dante) from a poem by Victor Hugo. Hugo’s poem is more about Dante Alighieri’s ability to fashion wild, if not frightening, images, while Liszt himself was more interested in The Divine Comedy. His “reading,” however, seemed to involve holding Inferno in one hand and Paradisio in the other, since the climax of this “fantasia quasi sonata” basically involves piling the “music of heaven” on top of the “music of hell.”
What was interesting about Lewis’ performance is that, regardless of what he was playing, he never let the “semantics” of the music (such as Liszt’s “reading” of Dante, which is as flamboyant as it is selective) distract from the music itself. He could respect the extreme dynamic levels in Liszt’s score without going over the edge in either direction. He could simply deliver what Liszt had written and then let the result play with (or prey upon) the imagination of the listener. Similarly, while it was clear that much of the rhetoric of D. 575 could be traced back to the abundant capacity for wit found in both Haydn and Beethoven, Lewis wanted to make sure that the listener knew “what was cooking” in Schubert’s score, figuring that the emotional connotations would take care of themselves. As a result, Lewis never allowed even a twinkle in his eye during any of Schubert’s exercises of wit. Only in the Opus 10 ballades did Lewis seem committed to endowing the music with a suitably “dramatic voice;” but, after all, that was what Brahms’ wanted in this particular youthful effort.
The result is that last night Lewis presented himself as a performer who always knew how to provide proper service to the composer, regardless of broad differences between the composers whose music he had chosen to program. This included his decision to take one of Liszt’s late piano pieces as an encore. Liszt never called this anything more than a “little piano piece;” but Lewis did well to complement the flamboyance of Liszt’s approach to Dante with this far more modest gesture.