BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concerts – Beethoven Piano Sonatas – 11: Elisabeth Leonskaja [Opp.49/2, 109 & 111]

Piano Sonata No.20 in G, Op.49/2
Piano Sonata No.30 in E, Op.109
Piano Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 17 November, 2011
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s, London

Elisabeth Leonskaja. Photograph: Jean MayeratIt is rather amazing to think that the second Opus 49 Piano Sonata almost didn’t make it into the canon of 32, thus denying many a beginner pianist one of the most popular introductions to Beethoven. Anyway, there it was in the penultimate recital of this series, oyster-like, in all its familiar directness. Elisabeth Leonskaja played it with a mixture of affection and uncomplicated artistry, presenting the primary materials of broken chords, Alberti basses and unchallenging scales – through meticulous, natural phrasing, hints of rubato and buoyant of attack – with an infectious, subliminally prophetic malleability. It didn’t seem inconsequential against the expressive and emotional power of the two late sonatas.

The way Leonskaja connects with music – Beethoven’s and Schubert’s in particular – gives it a ferocious honesty and imaginative scope that grows from her natural inwardness. It’s not particularly hard to make something of the pointed contrasts of tempo and mood in the first movement of Opus 109. Leonskaja, though, made them interact in a sort of mutually corrective dialogue, where the meaning of the seemingly innocent, lilting E major tune is embraced by the rhapsodic seriousness of the Adagio passages – and vice versa – with each interpreting the other; and her delivery of the crucial moment of the reprise of the opening material was a triumph of tact, inevitability and grace. Into this concentrated, short movement Beethoven placed the transformational possibilities of sonata form, to be thoroughly realised by Leonskaja. Her playing of the Prestissimo second movement was vertiginously on the edge and drove a wedge through the reconciliatory potential of the first movement, leaving her and us to pick up the pieces in the Variations of the finale. Her progress to the flattened-out version of the Theme was inspirational enough, but her easing into the gradual implosion of the notes into those elemental trills was something else, a source of protean energy and played with a clarity and discretion that didn’t impede the cascades of notes all around them. The return of the hymn-like Theme was a moment of pure recreation.

The finale of Opus 111 was another world, though, the fourth Variation starting the prolonged process of yielding, detachment and escape, with that all-important added C sharp clinching one of music’s most extraordinary disappearing acts. Leonskaja’s overview and control was remarkable, the trill-supported ascent to musical nirvana completely enthralling, the sort of music making that makes the world a better place.

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