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Beethoven Festival Weekend, Wigmore Hall review 2 - total mastery in tone and depth | reviews, news & interviews

Beethoven Festival Weekend, Wigmore Hall review 2 - total mastery in tone and depth

Beethoven Festival Weekend, Wigmore Hall review 2 - total mastery in tone and depth

Perfect sonorities from ensembles, profundity from the peerless Elisabeth Leonskaja

Elisabeth Leonskaja: supreme in the last three Beethoven piano sonatas

Any festival would be proud and honoured to end with the great Elisabeth Leonskaja playing the last three Beethoven piano sonatas. Here the Everest was swiftly scaled as the tenth concert of a packed Wigmore Hall weekend.

How I wish I could have heard more than the final two on Sunday evening, all-Beethoven unlike some of the predecessors reviewed above by Jessica Duchen, but they served up the perfect contrasts: breathtaking sheen in the lighter earlier Beethoven from young players alongside the best in their middle years followed by poleaxing profundity. There can be no pianist alive who conveys weight without force, makes the silences speak, stitches powerful and ethereal into one seamless whole, better than Leonskaja.

Even so, I want to hear much more from Aleksandar Madžar, who wrought miraculous sounds of well-anchored clarity in the earlier concert, transforming some stock turns of phrase into something rich and rare, especially in rising from an imposing bass. In my memory, at least, he faced the indelible challenge left by Leonskaja with four peerless wind players from the Estonian Festival Orchestra at the 2018 Pärnu Festival in the Op.16 Quintet, a performance in a million, but these five - one of them sharing the two performances in common, horn-player Alec Frank-Gemmill (pictured below by Jen Owens) - shaped up very well, the individuals coming to the fore in the solos Beethoven makes sure to give oboe (Nicholas Daniel), bassoon (Amy Harman), horn and clarinet (Michael Collins) in the minor-key episodes of the superb Andante cantabile. All were taken with predictably ravishing artistry.Alec Frank-GemmillFrank-Gemmill and Madžar turned pure artistry to creative ends in the F major Horn Sonata of 1800 - unremarkable in itself save for the short central movement, no doubt because the natural horn limited too many difficult notes (Frank-Gemmill was playing on a splendid modern instrument). The horn-player plunged in unexpectedly with a solo flourish, wittily elaborated on the repeat; the lower notes sounded richer and rounder than I've ever heard from any other player.

By contrast the opener was high, bright and new to me: the Serenade in D for flute, violin and viola. Supremely cultured Benjamin Baker pivoted expressively, with plenty of visual life, between Janne Thomsen, Hugo Ticciati's regular flautist in the O/Modernt Ensemble, and an amazing new viola-player on the block, Timothy Ridout (pictured below), who's just become one of the latest intake of BBC Radio 3 New Generation Artists: a star to follow Lawrence Power, no doubt about that. The trio made rustic, al fresco sounds, and kicked the surprise tempest of the third-movement Allegro molto into startling life, but showed their individual sophistication in the Andante con variationi.

It was in the comparable movement of the much more famous Septet that one of the two newcomers in that second half, cellist Isang Enders, showed singing beauty of tone comparable to Baker's and Ridout's; double-bass player Jordi Carrasco Hjelm was the only one limited to support, though his sprightly underpinning shouldn't be underestimated. Again, collective and individual sonorities sounded so rich and gorgeous in the Wigmore Hall, a capricious venue acoustically speaking. Timothy RidoutEven at close quarters, Leonskaja's colossal sound never became overbearing. Her perfect poise over the keyboard and unique spring in the relaxed hands allows her to maximise contrasts and articulation without ever drawing attention to what she's doing; there's no "here I play loud" or "here I play soft". In a sequence of movements surely even today unparalleled for difficulty and range in the sonata repertoire - eight in all, with only short pauses between sonatas as Leonskaja turned to the back wall of the platform before returning to the keyboard - no stitch was dropped, no moment left for the listener to relax concentration. You could, I suppose, showcase the Allegro molto of the central A flat major Sonata, Op. 110 - the centre of the programme, though not the heart since it was all heart and mind in fiercely concentrated equilibrium - as the epitome of Leonskaja's art, the forceful yielding to the gentler vein without a break, but just a few brief spaces for air to make sure the two didn't blur into each other.

The greatest miracles happened, as they have to, in the finales. As Katy Hamilton pointed out in her short introduction, there's so much song here. It just happens, it just is, with Leonskaja, and the evolution of the variations is organic, too, so that you sometimes wondered how you got to the steely-radiant accents and staccatos of Op. 109's Variations 3 and 5, the furrowings of the brow in Op. 110's effortlessly-introduced fugue to banish sorrow, or the great swings and syncopations of the Arietta's most radical high-point. All of them were taken up to Olympus in three unforgettable conclusions. After a performance on this level, the listener just needs to take a break from concert-going for a bit and let it all percolate.

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