Pianist Paul Lewis at the Chamber Music Society: A deliciously subversive tour of tonalities

Paul Lewis, who played with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the Chamber Music Society on Thursday, demonstrated an understanding that tonality is not as secure as it may seem.

Even the intermediate piano student could play through the first 30 seconds of Schubert's Piano Sonata in B Major, D. 575 and hear that something crazy is going on.

It wasn't just Schubert. There are any number of ways one could map in a single program the strangely precarious state of traditional harmony, but none more deliciously subversive than the route Paul Lewis chose Thursday night. The English pianist's Philadelphia Chamber Music Society recital debut at the Perelman looked harmless on paper - Schubert, Brahms, and Liszt. It sent you away, however, understanding that tonality, this central idea of the classical era, was never as secure as you once thought.

If listeners didn't catch how easily music can slip from one key center to another, Lewis chose an encore that consolidated the idea in the span of about 80 seconds: The No. 3 "Andantino" from Liszt's 5 Kleine Klavierstücke, S. 192, a benediction of great economy that, by the way, could have passed for Brahms or Schubert.

Relationships among pieces bounced around stage all night. The thing, however, that made this program so special was this: Lewis had his points to make, but they were neither academic nor dry. He possesses a magnificence of both intellect and heart.

"The language in which musical ideas are expressed in tones parallels the language which expresses feelings or thoughts in words," Schoenberg wrote in his essay "Brahms the Progressive." Throughout the recital, Lewis' phrasing mirrored human speech. The Schubert's first 15 bars pass through four distinct keys, as though different speakers were interrupting one another in mid-sentence. That's Schubert's doing, but Lewis in the third movement took the idea and ran with it, giving each voice a sound unique to its register.

This control of color and articulation added up to something very orchestral in Brahms' Four Ballades, Opus 10. You could practically hear him channeling Brahms orchestrations in the second ballade, "Andante."

Brahms, in his late Three Intermezzos, Opus 117, starts off with what could have been a lullaby, but before long he gives you the sense of never knowing where he is going. Where he was going was further away from traditional tonality, a quality Lewis captured without any undue drama. His core beat was solid, any straying well considered for emotional impact.

He maintained an unusual degree of equanimity in the most obviously explosive work on the program, Liszt's Dante Sonata. It was not the most mystical interpretation or the most virtuosic - and certainly not unhinged - but something more mature and wise. His focus on color was extraordinarily well developed, never sharp, but finely graded.

Over and over, you got the feeling these pieces could not be played any other way. And yet, Lewis' approach kept saying: It's not about me, but about the music.