The air in Alice Tully last night was thick with anticipation. The concert, of the three piano sonatas that Schubert wrote in the last summer of his young life, was sold out. Paul Lewis strode onto the stage, bowed, sat down and immediately struck out the first notes of Sonata in C minor, D. 958. The articulation of the phrases was crisp but not chilly; sensitive but not sentimental. Billed as a poet of the piano, he displayed the expressiveness suggested by the moniker but also a quality less commonly associated with it, that of intelligence. Modeled on Beethoven's sonatas, D. 958 is heroic in its aspiration. Lewis gave its grandeur its due. I was holding my breath throughout the performance.
Sonata in A major, D. 959, the next work on the program, was played even better. The restlessness, the anger, the resolution of the music spoke more clearly than D. 958 of an individual and refined personality. I heard Schubert hesitate and think, choose and continue. Paul Lewis was playing not just with his fingers but with his whole body. The slow second movement was especially moving. The applause at the end was loud and warm. We all knew that we had heard a very special performance.
After the intermission, however, something in the air changed. Was the anticipation of what is reckoned to be Schubert's piano masterpiece, Sonata in B-flat major, D.960, pitched so high that it had nowhere else to go but down? The playing certainly felt different to me: at once too reverential and too technical. The music sounded familiar, not refreshed. It lacked the spontaneity of the earlier playing. Was the pianist too restrained? The last movement should be filled with a Dionysian joy, but it was subdued and controlled, and so the repetitions sounded tendentious and boring. It was a disquieting end to what was a brilliant first half.