Elisabeth Leonskaja is Triumphant in Mozart

15/09/2018

Mozart, Schoenberg, Webern: Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 14.9.2018. (CC)

Mozart – Piano Sonata in C, K330; Piano Sonata in B flat, K333; Piano Sonata in F, K332; Piano Sonata in A, K331 (c1783)

Schoenberg – Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19

Webern – Variations, Op.27

Here was inspired programming in the hands of one of the great pianists of our time. And yet, the Wigmore was far from full – does the Second Viennese School still scare away audiences? Surely not; and yet those that stayed at home missed a wonderfully thought-provoking evening of three Austrian composers who share a desire to communicate the most intense emotions, without compromise.

The four Mozart sonatas all hail from around 1783 and are magnificent in their variety; something Leonskaja completely understood. The C major introduced us to Leonskaja’s pure command of her instrument, pedalled to perfection with no loss of detail, her semiquavers a miracle of evenness. Including the majority of repeats over the course of the evening did lead to a longish recital, but with playing like this it was an absolute joy. The sonata also included the odd slip (and there was something of a memory lapse in K333) but in the hands of such an assured personality and within such mature interpretations, they mattered not one jot. The Andante cantabile was a beautiful aria, with phenomenal left-hand clarity; the audience was rapt throughout this sonata; the finale, freshly minted.

Sandwiched between K330 and K333 was the set of Six Little Piano Pieces by Schoenberg; exquisite, epoch-altering pieces, each of which occupies its own microcosm within the mini-macrocosm of Op.19, none less than the final piece, an homage to Mahler and composed in response to that great composer’s death – the opening notes of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony – F sharp, A and B – inform the pitch classes chosen and indeed form one of the prime sonorities. Using music, Leonskaja revealed a reading of the utmost concentration and, crucially, care. Every note was carefully weighted throughout; a surprisingly fast second piece (the one with the staccato major thirds) meant she could phrase those plunging phrases with a real legato. A remarkable reading, which led in to the B flat Mozart Sonata; and we heard how the same clarity that had made the Schoenberg so notable was present here, too. The beautifully exploratory development section to the first movement was almost modern in effect. The rubato for the central Andante cantabile was just on the right side of stylishness. The finale was positively bejewelled in terms of articulation.

The second half sandwiched Webern between two Mozart sonatas. Such a weight of experience marked Leonskaja’s K332, the F major Sonata; she operated a different palette for each sonata’s key colour, here projecting an unmistakable open F major, and working in stark accents in the development section of the first movement. Leonskaja’s ability to spin a melody like silk while imbuing it with heart-breaking melancholy was so evident in the central Adagio, before the finale burst in with unstoppable joy and energy. This was no finale in the sun, though; the melancholy of the minor key contrasts was keenly felt.

Leonskaja’s Webern, not as fragile as some, was stunning, not least for her integration of perfect silences into the argument. The robust faster sections made this positively uncompromising.

Finally (and it was finally; there was no encore), the A major Sonata, K331, with its famous set of variations to begin and its even more famous Rondo alla turca finale. The purity of the A major theme was a universe away from the Webern and led to a kaleidoscopic journey of colours. Contrasts and twists characterised the central Menuetto before that rondo surprised and delighted, the opening delivered with genius touch and controlled, uniform dynamic. Compare and contrast with Yuja Wang’s glitz in her performance of the Say/Volodos take on this movement at the Proms this year, perhaps.

This recital offered a salutary reminder that Mozart piano sonatas are a vital part of the piano repertoire, this was an absolute masterclass in musicality and interpretation. Many have essayed Mozart sonatas and failed; Leonskaja was triumphant.

Colin Clarke

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