Elisabeth Leonskaja: More Disappointing than Enlightening

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Ravel, Enescu, Debussy, Brahms: Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano). Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 5.6.2013 (MB)

RavelValses nobles et sentimentales
Enescu:  Piano Sonata no.1 in F-sharp minor, op.24 no.1
DebussyLe Vent dans la plaine
La Fille aux cheveux de lin
Feux d’artifice
Brahms:  Piano Sonata no.3 in F minor, op.5

I suspect that this recital will, as the cliché has it, divide opinion. Clearly many of those present, devotees and newcomers, thought Elisabeth Leonskaja’s performance one for the ages. I tried; I really did. And I should not exaggerate for rhetorical effect; it was certainly not the case, as I shall recount, that I found nothing of worth in this recital. That said, I found it deeply unsatisfying as a whole, and regret to say that much of what I heard seemed perverse.

Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales struck a jarring note with its opening, but equally a misleading one. The opening waltz sounded quite unlike Ravel, but not in the way some of its successors did, and not indeed in the way that Debussy sounded unlike Debussy or Brahms sounded (sometimes) unlike Brahms. It takes all sorts, I suppose, but all that remained of Ravel here for me was clarity; what I heard was brash, charmless, and very, very fast, hardly ‘Modéré’, a strange mixture of Rachmaninov-like gesture and early-Prokofiev brittleness. The second waltz offered extreme contrast; more ‘très’ than ‘assez’ – even allowing for the word’s dual meaning – when it came to the ‘lent’; or maybe that was just how it sounded after the frenetic speed of the first. There was a great deal of rubato; at best, this was exceedingly Romantic Ravel. Matters improved thereafter. The third waltz was nicely insistent, with hints of the Tombeau de Couperin to come, if still rather ‘Russian’ in tone; the fourth added a greater sense of fantasy. If Leonskaja’s voicing in the fifth and sixth waltzes remained on the Tchaikovskian side, at least the music sounded recognisably akin to, if not identical with, Ravel, albeit with extreme rubato once again. The seventh waltz started very, very slowly indeed, setting the scene for an ‘Epilogue’ that was certainly ‘Lent’, but which, by the same token, at times pretty much ground to a halt.

The three Debussy Préludes fared better, though were still odd. ‘La Vent dans la plaine’ and ‘La Fille aux cheveux de lin’ can take a pictorial approach. Accustomed though many of us have become to something more bracingly or even half-lit modernistic, it is good to have our preconceptions challenged. ‘Feux d’artifice’ reminded us that fireworks are brightly coloured: no bad thing. It was, however, hardly celebratory.

In between Ravel and Debussy had come George Enescu’s 1924 First Piano Sonata. Leonskaja clearly believed in the work. My ambivalent response may simply have been a matter of my own lack of understanding; I do not think I have heard it before, and cannot claim to be an Enescu habitué. However, I could not help but wonder whether its meanderings were to be ascribed to work, to performance, or to both. Leonskaja certainly relished the first movement’s perfumed tangents; might there, however, have been a more direct path to take? At any rate, we could luxuriate in the post-Debussy, post-Scriabin, post-Szymanowski  – well, post-the Szymanowski works of which I was thinking – exoticism. The second movement was lively and more purposeful, probably both as work and performance. We heard a somewhat motoric scherzo that yet danced. It is clearly ‘serious’ music; quite how good it is, I remain to be convinced. If to a lesser extent than its predecessor, it nevertheless went on a bit – and, to my ears, somewhat arbitrarily. The tolling bell of the slowish finale was wonderfully atmospheric; Leonskaja’s voicing of some gorgeous late Romantic harmonies was also something to enjoy. (In the horrible words of Harriet Smith’s programme note, ‘Moodwise [?], we’re back to the gravity of the first movement.’) I was pleased to hear the work, even though I was unsure to quite what it had amounted. The music of Szymanowski, to take an example not so very distant, may sometimes sound like an aural tapestry, but it will be finely woven, exquisitely so. This seemed too often to unravel.

None of Brahms’s three early piano sonatas is a favourite of mine; like Britten with respect to Brahms in general, I occasionally listen to them, if only to remind myself why I find them so uningratiating. (Unlike Britten, however, I adore most of Brahms’s music.) The first movement of the Third Sonata opened in grandly ‘Romantic’ fashion, but to my ears, it was not the right variety of Romanticism. Again, the tone sounded more fitting to Tchaikovsky, and galumphing Tchaikovsky at that. (To quote the strange programme note once again, if only to show that I was not being unduly selective in the previous paragraph, ‘An air of supreme confidence is evident from the opening, which strides in with considerable aplomb.’) Far more seriously, though, I found it well-nigh impossible to trace an overall line, which made me wonder whether that had been my problem in the unfamiliar Enescu. The second movement – ‘drawn-out’, according to Ms Smith’s strangely un-encouraging description – was played more straightforwardly, being pulled around far less; it emerged all the more strongly for that. Phrasing and voicing made excellent sense, even if the climax proved excessively brutal. The scherzo was a bit effortful at times, yet had a reasonable sense of direction; the trio yielded far more, though not unreasonably. However, the fourth movement would have benefited from yielding a good deal more, tending towards fierceness rather than melancholy. That was not a matter of speed, for it was actually taken rather slowly, but of overall conception – anything but tender. If some of the notes were slightly skated over in the finale, that was no catastrophe; it is arguably a near-necessity. There was a better sense of chiaroscuro here, even if line again proved more problematical. It was vastly preferable, however, to the first encore, the finale from Mozart’s F major sonata, KV 332/300k. That was weirdly Glenn Gould-like, almost akin to a cross between Czerny and Clementi, non legato proving wearing indeed, and with a near-total lack of lyricism or charm. At that stage, I decided it would be better to leave the second encore to those more appreciative.

Mark Berry