Gala Recital in Vienna Highlighted by Elisabeth Leonskaja

AustriaAustria Haydn, Schumann, Brahms, Szymanowski, & Juon: Yury Revich (violin), Bas Jongen (cello), Anna Magdalena Kokits (piano), Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano), Mozart Saal of the Wiener Konzerthaus, Vienna. 30.9.2014 (SS)

Haydn                                    Piano Trio No. 39 in G major Hob. XV/25, ‘Gypsy’
Schumann                            Adagio & Allegro op. 70
Brahms                                 Klavierstücke op. 76
Szymanowski                      Notturno e Tarantella op.28
Paul Juon                             Suite op. 89
Schumann                            Piano Sonata No.1 in F sharp minor op. 11

Officially this concert was a benefit gala for Live Music Now, the musical outreach charity founded by Lord Menuhin. Viennese LMN benefits take place annually at the Wiener Konzerthaus, feature a star guest, and knock up programmes based around what said star guest has in his/her backpack. When the star is Elisabeth Leonskaja, it’s an attractive prospect.

Leonskaja appeared after the interval with Schumann’s op. 11, a sonata she’s been touring lately along with Schubert and the tautly wrought outpourings of Berg’s op. 1. Schumann’s creative energies during his first decade as a composer were devoted almost purely to the piano, but his piano sonatas never seem to be treasured with as much affection as, say, the Davidsbündlertänze. In op. 11, his first sonata, the sense of Schubert’s death having closed a chapter on the form is keenly felt; much of the music’s thrust seems, to use a good but awkward to translate German expression, like an ‘Auseinandersetzung’ with sonata form – an intellectual engagement and confrontation in one. Leonskaja’s squarely Romantic rhetoric and fantasia-like rendering of structure made more of a clean break than an altercation with the classical sonata, indeed rather pulling Schumann towards Liszt and not looking back on Schubert at all, yet seemed naturally to have that aura of ‘rightness’ often held up as the ultimate validation of any interpretation. The way Leonskaja is wont to single out specific motivic elements and place them emphatically – here the falling fifth of the first movement’s ‘witches’ dance’ – felt properly integrated too. Meticulous rhythmic precision is less of a regular stylistic hallmark, but underscored the impressive articulacy of this performance with the added twist of not seeming particularly piano-like (as always, Leonskaja went after the most orchestrated tonal palette her voicing and pedalling can muster from the instrument). No containment then of Leonskaja’s distinctive pianistic personality, and certainly not of the soulful aspect her playing has, but the wonder of this performance laid in a fully realized large-scale vision, sustained with intensity and eloquence from the outset, despite an outwardly free-spirited take on the work’s form. A benefit gala is a strange place to be reminded about the standing of one of the great living pianists, but maybe more benefit galas should be like this.

Leonskaja is a tough act to precede, but the evening’s young musicians were quite wonderful in their own way. Even their 90 minute first half didn’t feel overlong, although three items were things I enjoyed playing once upon a time and nostalgia can work wonders on the sitzfleisch. Nostalgia also makes one less receptive to different ways of looking at things, and I wondered if that was my problem with cellist Bas Jongen, whose Schumann Adagio and Allegro seemed a little staid, not leaning into the piece’s yearning harmonies as urgently as most cellists tend to (tone and legato were silky-smooth however). Anna Magdalena Kokits performed a couple of the Klavierstücke from Brahms’s op. 76 and didn’t compare shabbily to even Leonskaja; a good deal of thought went into phrasing and voicing here. Szymanowski’s virtuosic Notturno e Tarantella for violin, which shows off instrument and performers in more typical benefit gala style, also seemed more marked by musicality than anything else, from both Kokits and violinist Yury Revich. All three musicians came together for the half’s bookends of Haydn’s familiar Gypsy Trio and Paul Juon’s rather less familiar 1932 Suite: the Haydn fine-grained, intimate, big on refinement (the famous Rondo all’Ongarese might however have done with a touch more bite); the Juon impish and reminiscent of the composer’s student Stefan Wolpe.


Seb Smallshaw

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