Schubert: Piano Sonatas Nos 14, 19 20 & 21

Our rating 
4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Schubert
LABELS: Harmonia Mundi
ALBUM TITLE: Schubert: The Late Piano Sonatas
WORKS: Piano Sonatas Nos 14, 19, 20 & 21, D 784, D958, D959 & D960
PERFORMER: Paul Lewis (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: HMC 902165.66

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This pair of discs could be misleading: Schubert’s last two Sonatas were recorded and issued, to very favourable reviews, in 2002. So only the first disc is new; Lewis was presumably dissatisfied with his previous recording of the C minor Sonata, D958. It almost goes without saying that this is piano playing of the highest calibre, to which the recorded sound does full justice.

Yet I do have reservations about his choice of repeats: he takes the first movement repeat of the
C minor Sonata, which seems to me not only unnecessary but mistaken. It is a fiercely dramatic exposition, which one only needs to hear once. Conversely, he doesn’t take the repeat in the first movement of the last Sonata, D960, where it seems to me absolutely essential. Without it, we lose nine bars of otherwise unheard music, including an all-important fortissimo trill – this may sound nit-picking, but the impact is enormous.

The B flat Sonata, D960 is essentially contemplative, and I suspect that Lewis, for all his versatility, is more at home in dramatic music. The slow movement of the A major Sonata, D959 has an outburst of unbridled ferocity at its centre, and Lewis’s is by far the best realisation of it that I have ever heard.

With works of this exalted greatness, there are always going to be sharp differences of opinion about how they should be played. Though I couldn’t live without Richter’s very different interpretations of three of these works, I shall certainly return to this valuable set.

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Michael Tanner