The Planets Viewed in Uneven Focus but Leonskaja Shines Consistently in Mozart

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Holst: Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano), Ladies of the London Philharmonic Choir, Basel Symphony Orchestra, Dennis Russell Davies (conductor), Cadogan Hall, London, 28.9.2015 (AS)

Mozart – Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat, K271, Jeunehomme

Holst – The Planets, Op. 32

As she approaches her seventieth birthday celebrations Elisabeth Leonskaja has never enjoyed a higher reputation, and with good reason. Her exceptional abilities were recognised at a young age by Sviatoslav Richter, no less, who became a lifelong friend and mentor, and her art has continued to blossom with the passage of time.

It was an astonishingly bold and innovatory move on Mozart’s part to introduce the soloist in the first bars of his Ninth Piano Concerto, written in 1777, when he was 21 years old. The effect still seems surprising now. But it was the sweet-sounding strings and crisp woodwind playing of a much-reduced Basel Symphony Orchestra that made the initial impression under Dennis Russell Davies’s leadership. It was in fact good to hear his stylish conducting in a classical work, since otherwise in recent times we have usually heard him in twentieth-century repertoire. Then it was Leonskaja’s playing that seized the attention. Unsurprisingly, her style is more expressive than that of younger Mozart players of today, for she grew up in Russia at a time when the great players of the day had been influenced by more old-fashioned traditions. Her phrasing had wonderful warmth and a natural, easily paced flow, yet at the same time she observed and never imposed on or distorted the young Mozart’s pure Classical style. In the Andantino Leonskaja’s playing seemed a shade deliberate, but in an appealing way, as if she wanted to ensure that all aspects of the composer’s creative genius were made completely clear to her listeners.

In the finale Mozart springs another surprise by inserting a stately minuet in his otherwise large-scale movement in Rondo form. Leonskaja’s light-hearted, skipping rhythms in the main part of the movement formed an effective contrast with her thoughtful, beautifully shaped playing in the slow episode. This was a most distinguished performance.

It was not by any means a full house for the concert’s first half, and it was surprising to find that more seats had become vacant for the second half of the programme. Maybe The Planets is just too “popular” for devotees of Mozart and/or admirers of Leonskaja.

One well-known critic, when welcoming recordings of British orchestral music by “foreign” interpreters, occasionally used to refer in a slightly disparaging fashion to traditional performances given by “British knights”. On this occasion the American conductor and Swiss orchestra combined to create a reading of Holst’s score that was sometimes markedly different from British traditions, and dare one say it, not always to the music’s advantage.

It’s a good idea to take the opening ‘Mars’ at a steady tempo, so that the unusual, insistent 5/4 rhythm makes its full effect. Russell Davies’s tempo was indeed slow, but maybe a bit too much so, for the effect became a bit lumpy and uncomfortable, especially as the decibels created by the large orchestra were a little too much for the moderate-sized Cadogan Hall and the brass playing sounded coarse, a little uncoordinated and slightly fallible technically. It was a relief to get to the quieter ‘Venus’, but here the basic tempo was slightly too fast to convey the quality of peace that Holst wanted, and there were slightly disrupting changes of pulse. ‘Mercury’ went pretty well, but again the rhythm became a bit sticky, although there was much to admire in the leader’s violin solos. ‘Jupiter’ was first-rate, with very lively playing and plenty of warmth in the big tune. So was an atmospheric ‘Saturn’, though foibles in the brass returned. If the pulse of the generally lively ‘Uranus’ occasionally seemed to become a little muscle-bound, its quiet, reflective ending was very well managed.

Best of all was ‘Neptune’. Russell Davies conjured a potent atmosphere at its outset, and the contribution of the female wordless chorus was beautifully contrived. The singers were situated in the room at the back of the stage, and were revealed when two doors slowly opened and their lovely floating tone gradually emerged to combine with the orchestral textures. As the orchestra stopped the chorus members continued to pitch their two notes with total accuracy, fading away as the doors gently closed in front of them. It was a magical end to the evening.

Alan Sanders     

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