Leon McCawley Impresses in Mozart

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Stravinsky, Mozart, Mendelssohn. Leon McCawley (piano), Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Kirill Karabits (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 30.10.2014 (RB)

Stravinsky – Pulcinella Suite
Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major, K488
Mendelssohn – Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op 56 ‘Scottish’


Stravinsky’s Pulcinella was originally commissioned by Diaghilev who wanted the composer to produce a ballet based on characters from the commedia dell’arte.  Stravinsky based the work on music which was at that time attributed to Pergolesi although it has more recently been attributed to a number of other composers.  Interestingly, Stravinsky decided to keep much of the 18th Century material but through his imaginative use of orchestration, and the introduction of more modern rhythms and harmonies, he recast the music in a neoclassical idiom.  The Pulcinella suite is derived from the full ballet and it is a good choice for a concert opener.  The RPO started well, producing some vibrant rich sonorities in the overture but the solo entries were initially a little tentative and the intonation was not quite right (there is a lot of very exposed writing in this piece).  The RPO’s principal oboe and leader succeeded in getting a firmer grip on proceedings in the second movement where much of the playing was rapt and eloquent.  Karabits kept a firm grip on both tempo and balance and highlighted some interesting features, including antiphonal responses in the strings in the third piece, the lightness of the orchestral textures in the fourth, and the irreverent slapstick quality of the seventh (the brass were blowing big raspberries!).  The RPO got increasingly better as the piece progressed and the final piece was played with brio.

Mozart’s A major Piano Concerto has had many distinguished advocates in the past including Haskil, Yudina, Michelangeli, Uchida, Pires and Perahia.  (I’m also a big fan of the Horowitz recording but probably for all the wrong reasons – it is not one for purists!)  Leon McCawley has made a close study of Mozart’s piano music so it was good to hear him putting his own personal stamp on this concerto.  Karabits and the RPO took a robust approach to the opening exposition while at the same time retaining a sense of Classical elegance. McCawley was clearly in complete agreement as regards interpretation: his playing was crisp and elegant but without being unduly precious while the passage work was played with a high degree of technical finish and attention to detail.  There was excellent rapport and interplay with the RPO and McCawley brought a vibrancy and an instinctive naturalness to the piano writing.  The tempo for the F Sharp minor Adagio was well judged and McCawley played the opening in a richly expressive and romantic way – this was absolutely gorgeous playing.  The central section had real charm and the final section, where the piano is accompanied by pizzicato strings, was highly charged and atmospheric.  The tempo was again well judged for the finale – pianists sometimes play the opening too fast, creating subsequent difficulties for the woodwind players.  The central section had a bubbling effervescence and there was a playful quality to some of the exchanges with the woodwind.  I thought this was a first rate piece of playing by McCawley with Karabits and the RPO providing strong support.

Mendelssohn’s ‘Scottish’ Symphony is featuring increasingly on concert programmes and a number of conductors seem – quite rightly – to be determined to dispel the view that this is sentimental and/or superficial music.  From the outset it was clear that Karabits and the RPO were intent on delivering a full blooded high octane performance of this work.  The RPO captured the mood of the plangent opening beautifully and the transition to the faster material was well handled.  Karabits and the RPO did an excellent job bringing out the turbulence and rawness of the opening movement – there were points when the music seemed to have a visceral elemental quality.  Karabits went into the scherzo without a break and continued to bring out the dramatic contrasts in the music, presenting us with some vivid contrasts in texture and sonority.  The slow movement had an emotional directness and honesty and packed quite a punch.  Karabits once again moved without a break into the final war dance which was played at quite a pace and remained rhythmically taut throughout.  There was less of a sense of risk taking in this movement and it was consequently the least successful of the four – I would have liked to hear more rhythmic bite and more of the emotionally uninhibited that we heard in the earlier movements.

There was enthusiastic applause from the audience and Karabits and the RPO responded by playing the scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream as an encore.  A good choice to end a highly enjoyable concert.


Robert Beattie

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