Consistently high standard of playing throughout Leon McCawley’s Wigmore Hall recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Janáček, Schumann – Leon McCawley (piano):  Live-streamed from Wigmore Hall, London, on the Wigmore Hall YouTube channel, 10.10.2020. (RB)

Leon McCawley

Schubert – Piano Sonata in A Major D664

Janáček On an Overgrown Path, Book 1

Schumann – Kreisleriana Op.16

In this recital Leon McCawley focused on different aspects of the Romantic piano repertoire ranging from Schubert’s ‘Little’ A Major Sonata to contrasting character pieces by Janáček and Schumann. McCawley has form in this repertoire:  last year he released a recording of Schubert’s piano music to critical acclaim while his Schumann recording in 2004 which featured Kreisleriana was an Editor’s Choice in Gramophone Magazine.

The recital opened with Schubert’s A Major Sonata D664 which was written in 1819 while the composer was on holiday in Upper Austria. This lyrical sunny work was dedicated to the daughter of the composer’s holiday host, Josephine von Stoller, whom Schubert considered ‘very pretty’ and ‘a good pianist’.  Schubert later reworked the opening of the slow movement into his song ‘Der Unglückliche’. There was much to admire in McCawley’s sterling interpretation of this work. He adopted a nice flowing tempo in the opening Allegro and shaped the opening lyrical melody beautifully. He displayed enormous sensitivity and tenderness while also breathing life into the more dramatic elements of the work and the strong dynamic contrasts. The slow movement was poetic and eloquent, and McCawley did a wonderful job in capturing the reflective intimacy of the music. The finale was enchanting as Schubert’s scales and runs bubbled along delightfully.

Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path is a set of miniatures based on Moravian folksong. The ten pieces which comprise Book 1 are modest in scale, but they have a powerful emotional impact. Janáček’s highly distinctive compositional style is evident from the start and some of the pieces display a sense of unease and foreboding. I had not heard McCawley in this repertoire before, but I am pleased to report that it suits him extremely well. His performance was idiomatic and evocative and conveyed beautifully the essence of each of these miniatures. ‘Our Evenings’ had a wistful nostalgic quality while ‘A Leaf Blown Away’ captured the fluttering of the leaf with exquisite finesse. McCawley brilliantly captured the thematic contrasts and startling rhythmic changes in the music. ‘Words Fail!’ opened in sombre brooding fashion but moved seamlessly to radiant lyricism. The final three pieces in the set show Janáček’s preoccupation with the recent death of his daughter and the music is very unsettled and ambiguous. McCawley’s playing was nuanced and insightful, crystallising the very complex emotions at play.

The final work on the programme was Schumann’s Kreisleriana which the composer wrote over a period of four days in April 1838. The Kreisler of the title is an eccentric conductor who features in the works of ETA Hoffmann. However, there are also allusions to Clara Schumann in the work – Schumann wrote to her: ‘You will smile so sweetly when you discover yourself in it’. Each of the pieces has contrasting sections representing the multiple sides of Kreisler’s personality as well as Schumann’s own Florestan and Eusebius characters.

McCawley captured the angry, agitated state of the first piece brilliantly as rapid semiquavers swept to the top of the piano. The central section, where Eusebius makes his first appearance, maintained the flow while allowing the expressive lyricism of the music to shine through. McCawley’s articulation in the third piece was very impressive indeed. The triplet semiquavers which open the piece conjured up a whiff of diabolism while the coda was a virtuoso tour de force. McCawley performance of the slow fourth piece was rapt while the central section was pure poetry. The dotted rhythms of the fifth piece were dispatched with elan and McCawley captured the mischievous impish quality of the music. Schumann marks the final piece in the set ‘fast and playful’ although it is a curious mixture of styles. McCawley seemed to inject a slightly dark sinister quality into the opening section with its very soft dynamics and tripping rhythms. The central section in contrast was passionate and heartfelt as the composer’s beloved Clara seemed to come into focus one final time.

Overall, this was an extremely impressive piano recital featuring a consistently high standard of playing throughout. I hope that Leon McCawley will record some of Janáček’s piano music in future as his performance deserves to be heard much more widely.

Robert Beattie

For more about the Wigmore Hall event click here.

Leave a Comment