Much to Admire in an Intense Programme from Elisabeth Leonskaja

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert: Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano). Wigmore Hall, London, 26.1.2017. (CC)

Beethoven – Piano Sonata in E, Op.109

Brahms – 7 Fantasien, Op. 116

Schubert – Piano Sonata in D, D850

This was an intense programme from Elisabeth Leonskaja. The first half in particular, juxtaposing the first of Beethoven’s last three Sonatas, with Brahms’ own late fruits, his Op.116, offered little space for levity.

Leonskaja’s platform manner likewise eschews jocularity. She’s on, a quick bow and then straight down to it, almost as if expecting complete concentration from the off. Beethoven hardly features in Leonskaja’s discography, although it is relevant that there is a recording of Beethoven’s Opp.109-111 on Dabringhaus und Grimm’s Gold label (review). This performance of Op. 109 began in fluency and warmth but never in blurring. Clarity was all, a trait carried forwards into the hard but not harsh attacks of the second movement (Prestissimo). The occasional miss reminded us that, now in her seventies, Leonskaja is fallible; as did a fumbling moment in the finale’s great set of variations. In this last movement, though, Leonskaja found beauty upon beauty, her judgement impeccable throughout.

The Brahms Op.116 held much to admire, from the deep sound of the outgoing first Capriccio through the beautifully judged Andante Intermezzo via the tempestuous (and impetuous) Allegro passionato Capriccio through to the enigmatic Adagio Intermezzo and the glowing Andante teneramente. The tumultuous final Allegro agitato Capriccio brought the cycle full circle. True, another moment’s uncertainty hearkened back to the slips of Op.109, but there was much to relish here.

Nearly a decade ago, I reviewed Leonskaja performing the last three of Schubert’s sonatas in one evening in this very hall. Here she was again with Schubert in sonata mode, but this time offering D850, in D major. The first movement can invoke traces of awkwardness in lesser pianists, yet there was nothing of the sort here. Leonskaja found real depth, especially in the movement’s coda. The second movement Con moto was superbly sculpted, the movement as a whole exuding the sense of a proper journey (much as Uchida does in her Philips recording). Leonskaja’s sense of rhythm made the third movement a revelation, the “limping” rhythm perfectly placed, while the false simplicity of the finale’s opening with its “tick-tock” left-hand led into a movement of real profundity.

There was a fairly extended, single encore: a dramatic Liszt Sonetto No.104 del Petrarcha from the second, Italian, Années de pèlerinage. Glowing and generous, its warmth seemed custom-designed to insulate us against the cold January evening that awaited outside.

Colin Clarke

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