sat 25/05/2024

Elisabeth Leonskaja, Queen Elizabeth Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Elisabeth Leonskaja, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Elisabeth Leonskaja, Queen Elizabeth Hall

Infinite depths and dazzling orchestral breadth in the great Russian pianist's latest recital

Leonskaja: Russian orchestral pianism tempered by clarityJulia Wesely

On most of her London visits, Elisabeth Leonskaja has been an unassuming high priestess of the mysteries and depths in core sonatas by Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert. This time she applied her Russian-school style of orchestral pianism, tempered as always by absolute clarity, to burning the mists off Ravel, Debussy and the French-inspired Romanian, Enescu.

She went on to give us colossal enlightenment in what must be the greatest work ever composed by a 19-year-old, Brahms’s Third Piano Sonata in F minor.

If Brahms was the last of the titans, Leonskaja embodies the twilight of the gods. We know that Sviatoslav Richter was her most influential mentor and duet-partner, and she reflects after her own fashion his mesmerizing sense of spacious concentration. You can’t fail to focus on every bar as Leonskaja commands it; no-one in the audience moves a muscle between movements. She is poised to provide the perfect weight, but that doesn't stop her rolling fluidly around the keyboard or lifting an elegant heel in the air as she flies off a perfectly calibrated use of the pedals.

Enescu’s F sharp minor Sonata is a sphinx which, this pianist persuades us, has real secrets at every turn. If his first movement felt like an improvisation, it was one with miraculous modulations and hints of themes that he could have developed, had he so chosen. A presto whirls us into the streets before a tolling, entombed finale which eventually comes up for air.

There was not a hint of dry ice in either of these phantom ballrooms

Around it we needed the concentrated flights of Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and three Debussy Préludes. The Ravel was all about the subtlest of waltz-rubatos – they would be writ large in the Brahms – while Leonskaja kept her bigger, blueprint sonorities in check for Enescu. With perfect symmetry, her second encore would restore us to French 3/4 in a serious take on Debussy’s La plus que lente. Refreshingly, there was not a hint of dry ice in either of these phantom ballrooms, nor in Debussy’s wind that sweeps majestically across the plains. His Girl with the Flaxen Hair was more an imperious Mona Lisa than a Greek kore; we would have to wait for the Brahms sonata for Leonskaja’s hypnotic way with seemingly simple meditations.

It embraced worlds. Brahms’s opening Allegro maestoso may refuse to settle to generous melody, striding over its songs in seven-league boots. But the pay off came with Leonskaja’s generous transcendentalism in the larger-scale of the two slow movements (the second is a mere Intermezzo, but how full of steady pathos). Here, too, you wanted its tenderest inspiration to linger, but there was big business in store for the belated Adagio theme which inspired Wagner to the throbbing coda of Hans Sachs’s second act monologue in Die Meistersinger. Perfection, too, was Leonskaja’s titanic twinkling in the ambiguously energetic scherzo. But if the total mastery of Brahms’s chordal boisterousness at beginning and end proved completely satisfying, it was the heartbreaking tenderness – as in Leonskaja's Schubert – which went as deep as playing in a piano recital can ever go.

If Brahms was the last of the titans, Leonskaja embodies the twilight of the gods


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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