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Monday, October 10, 2011
A Conversation With British Pianist Paul Lewis


Paul Lewis begins a two-part exploration into the late piano works of Franz Schubert on October 18 at 92nd Street Y. His appearance at 92Y is part of a Schubert cycle that is taking him around the world. In the following joint interview with Chicago’s Symphony Center, which presented Mr. Lewis earlier this year, he discusses his feelings toward Schubert, 92Y and the cycle approach to programming.

In a recent interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, you called Schubert “endlessly fascinating.” What distinguishes him for you?
Many things, but if I had to point to one particular aspect of Schubert, it would be the way in which he creates a sense of drama. Normally when a composer wants to convey something dramatic, it’s far more common for them to write something demonstrative which jumps off the stage at the listener—and Schubert sometimes does that too. But more often, the drama of his music is of an inward looking nature. When Schubert wants to tell you something important, he will usually lower his voice rather than raise it—he draws you into the message, rather than projects it out to you. His moments of extreme despair seem primarily to be conveyed in that way—which, for me, makes them all the more powerful. 

What do you as a musician discover by exploring one composer in depth? How does it change your perspective?
That’s hard to describe, as it’s such a gradual process. Sometimes you might stumble upon a musical “solution” to something that has been eluding you via a different work by that composer. There’s one specific element of the way he writes which I’ve come to see in a different light as a result of studying some of the songs recently. Schubert often writes repeated figures, sometimes just repeated single notes, and it’s easy to see that as an accompaniment—something that shouldn’t be heard too much in the forefront.

But when you look at songs such as “Die Liebe Farbe” from Die Schöne Müllerin, or “Der Wegweiser” from Winterreise, you see that those insistent repeated notes are in fact of huge significance. There’s a sense of fate, or of not being able to escape, which of course represents a certain reality for Schubert himself after his diagnosis of syphilis in 1822-23. This has made me think again about similar passages in the solo piano music, such as the repeated notes in the first Impromptu of D. 899—every strand of Schubert’s writing has its significance, and this particular strand is, I feel, of great importance.

What are the challenges of such a project? Do you ever get bored or feel any kind of “composer fatigue?”
Definitely not! During the years I spent playing the Beethoven sonatas, there was never a moment when I felt bored of the music. Every day I knew there was something new to discover, and at the end of those years it felt like I was just getting started. It feels much the same now with Schubert. I’m not someone who constantly needs to be stimulated with huge amounts of new repertoire—I like to take my time with these things and to see what I can discover in the process. (Maybe that’s just another way of saying that I’m a slow learner….) But I think it’s impossible to be bored with truly great music—and the music you love the most always has the capacity to surprise you.

As you just mentioned, you’re also known for your Beethoven cycles. Are there other composers whose music you could contemplate making into a series?
There are many composers whose music I could imagine focusing on for an extended period of time. It’s really more a question of how you define a “series,” and what the value of that series might be. With the Beethoven sonatas, you have a body of consistently great works that span most of the composer’s life and provide an important overview of his work and development. With Schubert’s music, after 1822, you have some of the most unique and profound piano music ever written, with a darkness and individuality of expression that binds together the works written in that period.

To embark on any such journey, I think there has to be a sense of unity about the series—that way, it really becomes a journey. I’d love to focus on Haydn sometime in the future, for instance, but haven’t yet worked out how I could create a meaningful series of programs. I have to justify it to myself first—otherwise, who’d listen? 

This will be your second performance at 92Y? Do you have any specific thoughts about the hall?
I loved playing at 92Y in 2008. It was my debut with a program of Mozart, Ligeti and Schubert. This hall has an atmosphere not unlike Wigmore Hall in London, which lends itself perfectly to intimate music-making, and which makes it ideal for Schubert in particular.

What can we look forward to in your recitals in October 18 and next April? What might audiences particularly listen for?
The “Wanderer” Fantasy is Schubert’s most outwardly symphonic and virtuosic work for the piano. It’s full of orchestral colour—Liszt even arranged it as a piano concerto. I deliberately programmed this right after the Moments Musicaux, which are some of his most intimate and heartfelt miniatures— this is perhaps the most extreme contrast between works in the whole series.

In the April program, I decided to put two A-minor sonatas on either side of the intermission. The earlier one, D. 784, is by far the most austere and terror stricken of any of the sonatas. In D. 845, which he wrote a few years later, Schubert conveys a similar message but expresses it in a very different way. I thought it would be interesting to hear the development between these two works in the same program—almost like flip sides of the same coin.

See Paul Lewis at 92Y On October 18.

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