Elisabeth Leonskaja Celebrates 70th Birthday with Friends at the Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Brahms. Jörg Widmann, Mendelssohn, Schubert Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano) and other musicians – 70th Birthday Concert, Wigmore Hall, London, 22.11.2015. (RB)

AUSTRIA/Elisabeth Leonskaja © Julia Wesely - don't use the picture without copyright - sign!
Elisabeth Leonskaja © Julia Wesely

Artists: Elisabeth Leonskaja (Piano), Alex Redington (Violin), Jonathan Stone (Violin), Hélène Clément (Viola), John Myerscough (Cello), Alois Posch (Double bass), & Jörg Widmann (Clarinet)

Guest Artists: Alexandra Silocea (Piano), Pavel Kolesnikov (Piano) & Samson Tsoy (Piano)

Mozart:  Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor K478
Brahms:  Waltzes Op 39
Jörg Widmann:  Eleven Humouresques
Mendelssohn:  Clarinet Sonata in E Flat
Schubert:  Piano Quintet in A D667 ‘The Trout’

Elisabeth Leonskaja has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a solo performer, chamber musician and concerto soloist.  She is a standard bearer of the grand Russian school of piano playing and over the course of her career she has collaborated closely with many of the world’s greatest musicians and she memorably performed duets with Sviatoslav Richter.  This concert was held to celebrate her 70th birthday.

To open the concert Leonskaja was joined by members of the Doric Quartet (Alex Redington on violin) for Mozart’s First Piano Quartet.  This work was written in 1785 when Mozart had begun work on Le nozze di Figaro.  Like the late String Quintet K516 and Symphony No. 40, the work is in the key of G Minor which held an emotional power and significance for the composer.  There were a few minor balance issues at the start of the opening Allegro but these were quickly resolved as the players became used to the Wigmore acoustic.  Leonskaja played the piano part with a patrician authority and the warmth of tone; the wonderful shaping of the phrases and subtle use of rubato reminded me a little of Clara Haskil’s playing.  I absolutely loved the handling of the development section and, in particular, the way in which all four players brought out the gorgeous colours and Romantic fantasy elements of the work while retaining a sense of Classical architecture.  Leonskaja brought out the songful elements of the Andante while weighting the chords beautifully and retaining a sense of decorum.  The string players allowed the ensuing figurations to flow in a seamless way and provided us with elegantly woven textures.  In the Rondo finale we were introduced to Mozart the arch prankster and practical joker as all four players vied well with each other to bring out the subversive wit and sense of glee in the music.  Leonskaja bought a filigree lightness of touch to some of the passage-work and there was excellent interplay between her and her string partners.

From Mozart we moved to Brahms’ Op 39 waltzes in the arrangement for piano duet.  Leonskaja was joined by Alexandra Silocea, Pavel Kolesnikov and Samson Tsoy and they took turns performing the succession of waltzes.  Kolesnikov and Tsoy took the first six waltzes and I was pleased to see them using the pedal sparingly and keeping the textures light.  I particularly enjoyed the unfettered exuberance and effervescence which they brought to the scherzo waltz in C sharp major.  Leonskaja for my money is one of the world’s leading exponents of Brahms and one of the few pianists who can show us how the B Flat Piano Concerto should be played.  She was joined by Silocea for the next six waltzes and I was instantly struck by the poetic depth and the wonderfully nuanced exploration of Brahms’ rich harmonies and multi-layered textures.  Kolesnikov and Tsoy took on waltzes 13 and 14 and they brought a robust charm to the C Major waltz and an energy and propulsion to the A Minor.  Leonskaja and Silocea concluded the set with a beguilingly beautiful performance of the waltz in A Flat and a charged and incandescent performance of the D Minor waltz.

Leonskaja showed her ongoing commitment to contemporary music by opening the second part of the concert with a performance of Jörg Widmann’s Eleven Humoresques.  These pieces were written in 2007 and Widmann has indicated that he drew inspiration for the set from Schumann both in terms of his general approach to these works and the use of musical quotation and fanciful titles.  I am not familiar with these pieces and I was intrigued to hear them given the critical acclaim Widmann has garnered over the last two decades.  Leonskaja appeared to give a very committed and accomplished performance although she did not completely win me over.  I felt there was too much vague modernism in the initial few pieces which seemed to consist of unusual discords, irregular pauses, random collections of notes and extremes of dynamics.  However, I enjoyed the later pieces more as we heard ghostly echoes of Schumann’s works and Widmann transforming the thematic material in unusual and imaginative ways.

Having heard Widmann the composer, we then had an opportunity to hear Widmann the performer as he joined Leonkaja for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Clarinet Sonata in E flat which was written in 1824 when the composer was still in his teens.  After a slow introduction in which Widmann managed to highlight the notes for Happy Birthday in the short clarinet cadenza we moved to a sparkling Allegro moderato.  Leonskaja had the lion’s share of the work in this opening movement and she brought a deft lightness of touch to the rapid elfin figurations which are so typical of this composer.  The Andante opened with a wistful and atmosperic clarinet solo from Widmann.  Both performers did a wonderful job in conveying the charm and gentle melancholy of the gorgeous melody in this movement.  The spirit of Weber seems to hover over the finale and there was dazzling interplay between the performers with both exuding a real relish for the piece and the joys of music making.

This was a long and demanding concert for Leonskaja but after a second interval she returned undaunted with members of the Doric Quartet (Jonathan Stone on violin this time) and Alois Posch for one of the great staples of the repertoire, Schubert’s Trout Quintet.  The opening movement was brisk and businesslike with the performers doing a great job in bringing out the sparkling vivacity of the music.  I enjoyed some of the spirited exchanges between Leonskaja and Stone and some of the passage work was dazzling although there were a few occasions when the ensemble did not quite come together as well as they might.  The tempo for the Andante seemed spot on to me and the songful qualities in the music shone through – I particularly loved the radiant duet between viola and cello.  The scherzo was fast, incisive and cleanly delineated while the performers made the most of the composer’s dynamic contrasts in the trio.  In the immortal fourth movement I was struck by the clarity of the textures and the articulation of the rhythms which seemed to add to the zest and joie de vivre.  The finale was a delight with the performers bringing the perfect blend of Viennese charm and effervescence to end an evening of first rate music making.

This was a musical tour de force by Elisabeth Leonskaja – the performers concluded the concert by leading the audience in a chorus of Happy Birthday to you.

Robert Beattie

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