Superb pianism from Leon McCawley at Wigmore Hall

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Grieg, Schumann: Leon McCawley (piano). Broadcast live (19.3.2021) from the Wigmore Hall, London, and available on their YouTube Channel (click here). (RB)

Leon McCawley at Wigmore Hall

Schubert Drei Klavierstücke D946

Greig – Two Slåtter Op.72: IV. Haugelåt: halling; II. Jon Vestafes springdans

SchumannDavidsbündlertänze Op.6

In his last recital at the Wigmore Hall, Leon McCawley focused on the music of Schubert and Schumann (review click here). In this recital he has once again focused on these two composers while at the same time introducing us to lesser-known pieces by Grieg. McCawley has recorded Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke and Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze to critical acclaim.

Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke were written in the last six months of the composer’s short life. They were originally conceived as another set of impromptus although there is some debate as to whether the third piece belongs with the other two as it was written on different manuscript paper. Brahms first published the three pieces as a set some 40 years after Schubert’s death. McCawley captured the driven febrile quality of the first piece with its racing triplets and there was close attention to detail and richly varied tonal and dynamic contrasts. The second piece in E flat is the most famous of the set and it received a ravishing performance here. The opening section was enchanting and a rare moment of poetic beauty. Both here and in the ensuing two episodes McCawley gave a masterclass on how to make the piano sing. The third piece with its syncopations was robust and lively in equal measure and I loved the handling of the modulation ushering in the central section. McCawley’s virtuoso technique came to the fore in the coda driving the set to an exhilarating conclusion.

Leon McCawley at Wigmore Hall

McCawley next performed two Slåtter by Grieg which were written in 1902. These little-known pieces are transcriptions of Norwegian peasant dances which were originally played on the Hardanger fiddle. I must confess that I did not know these pieces before listening to the concert. I found McCawley’s performance very engaging and attractive and came away wanting to listen to more of them. The combination of vibrant rhythms, folk melodies and modal harmonies reminded me of Bartók’s folk dances, and in some ways these works seem to foreshadow the great Hungarian composer.

The final work on the programme was Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze which was composed in 1837. The Davidsbündler of the title was a society which Schumann created in his writings, designed to defend the cause of what was then contemporary music against its detractors. The inspiration for this, as with so many of Schumann’s works at the time, was Clara. The 18 pieces which make up Davidsbündlertänze are character pieces rather than dances and Schumann’s Eusebius and Florestan personalities dominate each of them. McCawley played in a free and unfettered way which brought Schumann’s flights of fancy and mercurial shifts of mood vividly to life. Each of the pieces were beautifully characterised as we moved from the inward musings of the second piece to the raucous humour of the third and the nervy impatience of the fourth. McCawley’s phrasing was exquisite in the fifth piece before he unleashed his virtuoso credentials in the sixth with its demanding left hand. The characterisation of the twelfth piece was spiky and piquant while in the following piece McCawley created an adrenaline rush. The work ended on a note of poetic reflection as Eusebius had the last word.

Once again this was an absolutely superb recital with a consistently high level of playing from beginning to end.

Robert Beattie

For a recent review of Leon McCawley click here.

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