sun 09/12/2018

Elisabeth Leonskaja, Wigmore Hall | reviews, news & interviews

Elisabeth Leonskaja, Wigmore Hall

Elisabeth Leonskaja, Wigmore Hall

Russian pianist's all-Chopin recital is seriously beautiful

Elisabeth Leonskaja: a splendour and focus that are truly of the Russian tradition

Elisabeth Leonskaja, who turned 64 on Sunday, is one of the last links to a grand school of Russian pianism where technique meant the marshalling of piano possibilities into a positively orchestral array of expressive means. Often noted in harness with Sviatoslav Richter, with whom she frequently played, Leonskaja deserves renown of her own. Her all-Chopin recital last night at the Wigmore Hall had a splendour and focus that was truly of the Russian tradition, fervent in feeling, masterly in discipline, a serious line in beauty.

All-Chopin programmes aren’t that common, surprisingly, considering that no one is more the composer for pianists. Last night’s banquet of polonaises, nocturnes and two piano sonatas (2 and 3) was a concentrated, intimate encounter with the composer as much as with the pianist, crossing 11 years of his peak (so it proved - he died at only 39), played without applause from one piece to the next. How did the audience know not to do that? Was it Leonskaja’s undemonstrative, intent demeanour at the piano? Perhaps more to do with her success in tautly linking the last echoes of one with the first attack of the next, an act that’s not a little to do with a keen sense of performance theatre.

The two Op 26 polonaises, one heroic, the other more disconcerted, felt thoughtful and questioning, Leonskaja’s remarkable left hand brushing out feathery trills as well as a satisfyingly uninhibited bass register - a virtue evident with Russian pianists above all. In the reverberant Wigmore Hall she lightened her pedalling to let her clean arpeggios sound out Chopin’s exquisite ear for melodic harmony. It’s a personal taste, though, whether someone reaches your heart with their playing as well as conquering your senses and admiration, and Leonskaja’s honest, passionate exactness is not always the same as fantasy.

The E flat Nocturne, op 55 no 2, sang out its song in poised contentment, joined by another piano voice like a happily married couple, not rapt lovers, which it could be more of. But that contentment offset more powerfully the hectic gallop with which Leonskaja launched the second Piano Sonata, whipping up ferocious thunderstorms, and an awesome scherzo of windswept rushes and dashes, a pell-mell narrative of maniacal speed either side of the slow, plaintive waltz in the middle - one of Chopin’s loveliest, simplest ideas.

Into the middle of this gripping set of pictures stomped a rather stolid funeral march movement, lacking in mystery or melodrama (perhaps overfamiliar to Russians forced to endure it unvaryingly for Soviet state funerals), but then once again off swept the wind, and that infinitely soft, rapid coda of tumbleweed blowing down a track that Leonskaja seemed totally to abandon herself to. Magical.

The fever/calm alternation continued in the second half, with some ardently emotional playing in the Polonaise-Fantasie contrasted by a firmly reassuring Nocturne, the F sharp minor op 48 no 2, where her song was rather an imperturbable nightingale filling the air instead of a whispered serenade of caresses, which I feel the plucking harp-like left hand indicates. But then, such pianism, such hushed, nuanced trills, such exactness in cascading arpeggios, such brilliantly hammered chords and sonorous dark tones - this is the weaponry of a great piano artist, thinking deeply and without fuss.

By the start of the third piano sonata, the final piece, we had only applauded once (for the interval), so intense was the feeling that it would be irrelevant to interrupt. The call to attention of the sonata’s start heralded some of Leonskaja’s most thrilling virtuosity yet, some of her richest and most orchestral textures. How elfin the scherzo was - scudding prestissimo until it sank into the treacle-pudding of her treatment of the slow theme, one place even my admiration for her conviction couldn’t convert me to.

I sense she reins her horses in now, probably she used to let them loose a little more - not for technical reasons but because she plays this music from the heart more than the imagination.

But then a final, irresistible spell: her encore, the serenely lovely D flat Nocturne op 27 no 2. It returns to the glade of nightingales - perhaps the most inspired of all Chopin’s night walks - the thread of their dual song woven in a golden chain, Leonskaja sheathing her mighty arsenal, quietly weaving enchantment for us. She is due to return to the Wigmore Hall next May; not to be missed.

This is the weaponry of a great piano artist, thinking deeply and without fuss.

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Comments

Spot on, Ismene! I rushed from the first half of Lortie's Chopin Etudes programme to the second of this, and both approaches - the mercurial and the majestic - worked as well. Mind you, it was Leonskaja's which felt like the sacred rite. That Third Sonata was endless, but in a totally hypnotic, heavenly way for me. Impossible to go deeper. You can count on it that there will be PLENTY of all-Chopin programmes next year. I'll give Zimerman a try, but I don't expect any others to come up to either of these.

I heard the entire concert and was enraptured from the start. Her command, her technique and her total immersion in the music was impressive, at once masterful, emotional and, at times, tear-jerkingly sensitive. She is a fine pianist of the "old school" - no flashy virtuosic pyrotechnics, just beautiful music, played with conviction and honesty. The closing moments of her Op 55/2 were some of the most beautiful music I have heard in a long time. Your review perfectly sums up a wonderful evening of music-making. Thank you!

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