An Excellent and Varied Recital from Leon McCawley

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Brahms, Chopin, Liszt, Debussy, Rachmaninov, Beethoven:  Leon McCawley (piano), Wigmore Hall,, London 9.1.2013 (RB)

Bach: Italian Concerto in F BWV971
Brahms: Waltzes Op 39
Chopin: Scherzo No. 3 in C sharp minor Op 39
Liszt: Les cloches de Genève from Années de Pèlerinage
Debussy: Cloches à travers les Feuilles from Images, Series 2
Rachmaninov: Étude-tableau in C minor Op 39 No. 7
Beethoven: 15 Variations and Fugue on an Original Theme in E flat ‘Eroica Variations’ Op 35

Since winning first prize at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna, Leon McCawley has released a series of critically acclaimed recordings (most recently of piano music by Brahms), and I was delighted to see that he opted to play one of the works from that disc at this concert.

McCawley opened the evening’s very diverse proceedings with Bach’s perennially popular Italian Concerto, which was published in 1735. The opening Allegro (there is no tempo marking in the score but it is fairly clear that the movement is an Allegro) was brisk and light with McCawley demonstrating a nice variety of touch and excellent articulation. The central andante was played in a simple and unaffected way and the decorated right hand line was elegantly delineated although I would have liked a little more gravitas and depth. The sparkling presto finale was playful and inventive with McCawley clearly on top of the fleet-fingered passagework and bringing energy and buoyancy to the contrapuntal exchanges.

Brahms’ Op 39 Waltzes are not played as often as they should be on the concert platform and it is great to see a pianist of McCawley’s stature championing these pieces. The programme notes reminded us that Brahms was a great admirer of Johann Strauss and the Op 39 Waltzes are influenced both by his waltzes and those of Schubert. McCawley kept the opening waltz light and graceful, successfully setting the scene for an evening of easy Viennese charm. The cradle song waltz in E major was played with real warmth and tenderness with McCawley giving us some beautifully tapered phrasing. The bubbling scherzo waltz in C sharp was played with infectious effervescence while the D minor was suitably nostalgic and elegiac. There was some highly expressive and richly layered playing throughout the set with McCawley keen to make the most of Brahms’ inner voices and rich harmonic progressions. The famous penultimate waltz in A flat was played with beguiling charm and delicacy before McCawley brought the set to an end with a probing and insightful performance of the final waltz.

The first half concluded with Chopin’s scherzo in C sharp minor which the composer wrote in 1839. McCawley perfectly captured the sense of disquiet in the opening and the ensuing stormy double octave passage was dispatched with aplomb. The arpeggio figurations linking the chorale theme were feathery light while the virtuoso coda was executed with brilliance and panache.

The second half of the concert opened with three works from diverse composers all trying to depict the sound of bells. McCawley brought out the impressionistic elements in the Liszt and did a splendid job in drawing in the listener and depicting the dramatic arc and narrative of the piece. There was a vivid and imaginative range of colours, textures and sonorities in the Debussy and some excellent layering of sound. Rachmaninov’s Étude-tableau was probably inspired by Scriabin’s funeral in Moscow in 1915 and it is a rather stark and brooding piece. McCawley brought out nicely the tone painting and elegiac qualities of the work.

The degree of technical finish and attention to detail was uniformly excellent throughout this recital but McCawley’s performance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ variations was the highlight for me. He nailed the deadpan wit and humour of the opening and used a wide range of tone colour to bring out the dramatic contrasts. The bustle and voicing of the material was superb with McCawley showing an excellent understanding of the motivic relationships and underlying musical structure – some of the unexpected harmonic twists and turns sounded completely fresh-minted and came as a genuine surprise. As the variations progressed, the audience became increasingly caught up in the infectious fun, vivid characterisation and rag bag of surprises. The embroidered figurations in the largo variation were beautifully controlled while the contrapuntal textures and voicing were deftly handled. This was a glorious finish to a highly enjoyable concert.

As an encore McCawley gave a rapt and poetically nuanced performance of Schumann’s ‘Des Abends’.

Robert Beattie