Piano Sonata No.8 in C minor, Op.13 (Pathétique)
Piano Sonata No.9 in E, Op.14/1
Piano Sonata No.31 in A flat, Op.110
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 10 November, 2011
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London
BBC Radio 3’s Beethoven Piano Sonata series at LSO St Luke’s is now on the home stretch, and, although the 32 have not been played in number order, the last four have been saved for the final three recitals. Moreover, in a series given over to younger-generation pianists, Opuses 109, 110 and 111 are in the hands of an artist from an older generation, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Russian, a friend of Sviatoslav Richter and a musician whom audiences hold in awed affection, if not reverence.
I first heard her in Schubert, and there was that instant ‘hit’ of great music being inhabited by a great musician. Subsequently, the certainty and originality of her interpretative views and the cogency with which she applies them, allied to the strength and tenderness of her playing have resulted in some compelling recitals.
Compelling is the word to describe her performance of the ‘Pathétique’. Many pianists treat this much put-upon Sonata as a grand, almost up-beat statement of anguish. Leonskaja, though, made the opening as introspective as possible, the second phrase already starting the process of withdrawal (Schnabel does something very similar here), with that octave rising melody in the right-hand battling with inertia. She also scaled down the dynamics, to suggest energy limitations, with the chromatic scale that didn’t so much descend to the Allegro proper as slump down to it. This is one of Beethoven’s most familiar works, usually decked out with heroic notions of defiance and triumph over adversity. With Leonskaja, something more complex and muted was going on, not subjective tinkering but a completely valid overview that extended into a beautifully veiled slow movement in which the mood of hushed reverence led naturally into a distracted, evasive reading of the finale. This was C minor Beethoven at its most equivocal, with expectations well and truly subverted.
Emotionally, the little Opus 14 Sonata is much simpler fare, but, one or two fluffs aside, there was a light-fingered clarity and independence of line in the first movement that expanded the voice-leading (this is the Sonata Beethoven arranged for string quartet); the E minor allegretto was brushed with melancholic yearning; and, in the finale, Leonskaja played off the lyrical aspirations of the main theme against its brusque rejoinder to fine, ironic effect.
You normally have to wait until the Adagio of Opus 110 for the darkness-to-light message to start making itself felt. By sleight of hand, Leonskaja presented the first movement as a fantasy of unattainable perfection, deflated by the pokey, two-in-bar scherzo and a middle section sounding unusually wild and exposed. It set up the spiritual crisis of the Adagio, which Leonskaja realised with unremitting intensity, only gradually admitting the possibility of relief in the first fugue. Her performance was Mahlerian in its penetration and scope, and the way in which the ten G major chords, like a mid-wife, ensured the safe delivery of the second fugue was Beethoven-playing at its best. It just needed the brief concluding A flat peroration to anchor the aspirations of the first movement.