Perth Concert Hall
It is not fantastical to think that when the designers of Perth Concert Hall – in all its structural, visual and acoustic detail – first envisaged the building at the start of the new millennium, they imagined it with a piano sitting in the centre of the stage.
Although the auditorium has proved itself highly adaptable, it is beyond argument one of the finest places in the country to hear a piano recital. So beginning a new series of concerts by well-known soloists, under the banner “Classical Stars”, with pianist Paul Lewis playing Schubert sonatas makes perfect sense. Even better, this is the start of a commitment by the musician to play all of them over the coming years, and Perth is the Scottish venue to hear that project.
On what was, by happy coincidence, Schubert’s birthday, Lewis began with a career-spanning taste of what that journey might have in store, from one of the composer’s earliest excursions into the form (albeit in a version revised later), via one from his most anguished period, to a sunnier – and much better known – late work. It was the same programme he played for BBC Radio 3 in London’s Wigmore Hall earlier in the month, and this was the performance of a man who has lived with – and in – these pieces and their narrative for a while.
In the E flat major D568 Sonata that was immediately clear in his organic phrasing of repeating phrases, full of subtle alterations in their sequence and, audibly, between performances. A very thoughtful Andante slow movement, unchanged by the composer when he returned to the work, was followed by a very sprightly Menuetto that was a long way from “strict time” in the dancing sense, and finished with what was almost a flamenco flourish.
In February 1823 Schubert had just been diagnosed with syphilis – a death sentence two centuries ago – and the A minor Sonata, D784, surely reflects his despair and anger. In its three movements, Lewis found the anguish and resignation at the work’s heart. Even more of a challenge, however, is the contradictory nature of the finale. Its pell-mell cascade of notes, with a glorious melody fighting through the fury to be heard, is writing on an epic scale for the instrument.
By comparison the character of D850 in D major, composed on a summer holiday two years later, is of a man more at peace. This is the sound of the fresh air and open country, even if the hiking is at an impressive pace. The Con moto second movement is not exactly bucolic, but the flowing stream it seems to depict is a picturesque waterway, and there is something of the fairground about the Scherzo that follows.
Lewis’s performance was all about the composition’s rhythmic playfulness, nowhere more so than in the concluding Rondo, with its clock-like pulse, and in his perfect phrasing of the charming coda.