Leonskaja’s Heroic Playing of Both Brahms’ Piano Concertos

14/11/2014

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Brahms, Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2: Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano), Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Okko Kamu (conductor), Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 13.11.2014 (SRT)

Putting both Brahms piano concertos onto the same programme makes eminent logical sense.  In fact, it put me in mind of the (only slightly) larger scale achievement of the SCO’s last season in performing all the Schumann symphonies in the space of two Thursday evenings.  Where else and how often can you hear such a marvellous exploration of a composer’s entire output in a particular area?  However, the reason why you don’t get a programme like this more often can’t be because of a lack of variety: that’s never a problem when you look at anything beyond the most superficial level of these two great masterworks.  No: it’s surely because it’s well-nigh impossible to find a pianist that can scale these two peaks concurrently.  So it’s a particular treat to find such a pianist in the magnificent Elisabeth Leonskaja, here making her SCO debut.

Leonskaja is currently in her late sixties, but you’d never guess it to hear the heroism of her playing.  She may have taken a while to warm into the rhythm of the first concerto, but her introduction of the chordal second subject was marvellous, flowing beautifully in contrast to the jagged contours of the work’s opening.  She then unleashed a torrent of octaves to launch the development, taking on a titanic level of grandeur that had been heretofore uncalled for.  From then on she repeatedly launched herself at the keyboard like someone a fraction of her age, but was never showy for its own sake.  Instead she managed quiet dignity for the Adagio (with majestic nobility in the big chords of the coda) and, when it came to the finale, she attacked it with remarkable vigour and speed, but she remained delicate and filigree for the internal episodes without ever straying too far from the work’s inner playfulness.

She was more business-like for the second concerto, approaching it with more steadiness and less outward heroism, but doing so in a way that tapped into the work’s inner delicacy.  She tackled the scherzo with seriousness and purpose, and her ghostly playing in the Trio set off beautifully against the bell-like swing of the orchestral parts.  Meanwhile the Allegretto grazioso finale scampered along with lightness of touch, after a beautifully conversational Andante.

It took me a little while to tune into the SCO’s chamber sound for these concertos, but once I attuned to it there were ample benefits from the smaller orchestra and, in particular, the string sound which felt unclogged and full of air.  The violins, in particular, grew in stature as the first concerto progressed, and they put in a beautiful turn at the start of the Adagio, seasoned by some wonderfully characterful bassoons.  The second concerto, too, felt very responsive, almost like a question-and-answer session between the two parties.  It put me in mind of Brahms’ famous affection for the Meiningen Court Orchestra (which had only 49 players), and of the SCO’s previous success in Brahms, particularly with Sir Charles Mackerras.  After a solid enough first concerto (featuring an uncomfortably clunky launch of the Adagio’s recapitulation), Okko Kamu’s conducting of the second concerto successfully managed to navigate the work’s various moods and, in particular, the contrasting tempo episodes of the first movement.

Simon Thompson

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