Leonskaya Plays Schubert with Finesse and Sensibility.

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert: Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano), Wigmore Hall, London, 18.9.2012 (GD)

Piano Sonata in A major D557
Piano Sonata in E minor D566
Piano Sonata in C D840 ‘Reliquie’
Piano Sonata in C minor D958

There is nothing formulaic or standardised about Leonskaja’s recitals. She seems to be constantly thinking and re-thinking a particular interpretation. Admittedly, I have attended recitals where she has not been on top form, but does that not happen even to the most distinguished musicians? And I have the impression that she is one of the few musicians today who are genuinely self-critical, hence the constant re-thinking of her performances.

Her Schubert series, in which she is playing all the Schubert sonatas and other piano works is seen as a very special musical event which is receiving glowing reviews. Tonight, typically, we had two earlier Schubert sonatas, followed by two of his late masterpieces. Leonskaja was to have begun the recital with the Piano Sonata in B D575 but chose instead to open with the A major Sonata D557. She played the sonata’s opening movement’s Allegro moderato in a deceptively straightforward and simple style, and although this was fitting in this most classically formed of all Schubert’s sonatas, initially I found it all a tad pedestrian. But by the time we reached the short development section touching on remote minor keys, the contrast was amazing as the music plunged into this brief but dramatic episode. Similarly, in the short andante theme with its orchestral evocations (especially horns) Leonskaja explored the rich harmonies in ways rarely heard. The finale, picking up from the Andante’s E flat major, was almost Haydnesque in its high spirits and subtle shifts in phrasing and dynamics.

Many of the same remarks can be applied to Leonskaja’s rendition of the E minor Sonata D 566. This is a two movement sonata, influenced by Beethoven’s Op. 90 two movement sonata although Schubert originally planned it as a full four movement work. Again Leonskaja focused on the rhythmic and tonal contrasts in the opening Moderato with, as always, her wonderfully crafted transitions to more lyrical thematic material in which Schubert’s sonatas abound. But it was in the rich, seemingly relaxed, harmonies of the second movement Allegretto where Leonskaja excelled, especially the trenchantly pointed, but never underlined, dactyllic rhythm which permeates the movement.

The C major Sonata D840 was, until quite recently, not much played in concert. This might have something to do with the fact that the work is incomplete comprising two large and complex movements. But if that argument applies, how is the popularity of the two movement ‘Unfinished’ Symphony to be explained? Although various attempts have been made at completion (as with the ‘Unfinished Symphony) the C major Sonata (also like the Symphony) seems to work as a fully consistent and total work in its own right. The title ‘Reliquie’ (‘relic’) was added long after Schubert’s death in 1828, when it was thought to be his last sonata. Of course, it was not the composer’s final sonata, but it certainly occupies the same tonal/harmonic realm of the following A minor Sonata and the last three great sonatas. Like those works the C major Sonata is full of tonal contrasts – even tonal ambiguities – as in the opening B minor theme in octaves which stay in that key; but in the tremendous build-up to the first syncopated statement of the theme one has the impression of a more folk-dance-like theme in the pervading six note rhythm There is a kind of humour in such passages but I would be tempted to call it ‘gallows humour’. I don’t think I have heard the power and depth of this music conveyed more compellingy than by Leonskaja tonight. What a massive tone she can command when the music calls for it as here! The only other pianist I could think of in this respect was the late Annie Fischer, but I am sure that pianists like Richter, whom I never heard in this sonata, could be equally convincing. It almost goes without saying that Leonskaja relished the first movement’s tonal, dynamic shifts and juxtapositions, as in the dramatic development section which magically leads back to B minor. The second movement Andante is in rondo form and links thematically to the opening theme in the first movement. It is almost a textbook example of dramatic, lyrical contrast, which found Leonskaja in her element, especially in the C minor downwood skips in sevenths and the dramatic accents in A flat major. Most commentators point out the poignant, even tragic, tone of this movement, but there is also dark irony here, especially in the minor key march like rhythms conjuring up an ‘unheimlich’ tone fully realised by Leonskaja.

The C minor Sonata is the first in the trio of Schubert’s last great sonatas. Leonskaja gave us a tremendously dramatic performance, again articulating the dramatic, lyrical contrasts to perfection. How naturally the beautiful transition from the opening C minor chords to E flat major, incorporating E flat minor sounded, and how effective the mysterious chromatically veiled passages of the development! The same interpretative insights applied to the second movement Adagio, particularly the B section with its chromatic modulations and frightening sforzandos. Not many other pianists in our own time can summon such volume and power in this music. The quite traditional third movement Menuetto was notable in the way Leonskja timed the A flat section with its interruptions every 4 bars by a silent bar giving a particularly haunting effect. The finale in 6/8 tarantella style with a relentless galloping rhythm is a difficult movement for even the most accomplished pianists. I heard a particularly compelling account recently from Mitsuko Uchida played as a real Allegro and sustaining the almost obsessive nature of the music from beginning to end. Leonskaja chose a slower tempo but the dramatic effect was just as vivid. The abrupt shifts from C minor to C major sounded even more sharp and dramatic at a slightly more measured tempo, and the remote C flat build-up to the astonishing development climax was overwhelming. Claudio Arrau called this movement a ‘ghost-dance’ and this came over very powerfully tonight with added echoes of Schubert’s Erlking song setting.

One would have though that any pianist would have needed a rest after such a taxing Schubert programme, but not Leonskaya who gave us two substantial encores:, the Impromptu Op. 90 No 2 in E flat, D899 and the Andante from the Piano sonata in A major, D 644 which she delivered with predictable pianistic finesse and sensibility.

This was great Schubert playing worthy to be compared with the likes of Annie Fischer, Richter – and more recently Brendel and Uchida. It wasn’t always note perfect but it projected so many of the other qualities which abound in this unique music, including poetry, serenity, drama, irony, songfulness, tonal ambiguity – even the musical rhetoric of the grotesque. This is indeed a rare interpretative ability only found in the greatest performing artists. I look forward to more Schubert from Leonskaja and also some updated, preferably ‘live’ recordings.

Geoff Diggines