Elisabeth Leonskaja at Aldeburgh Festival – Schubert Piano Sonatas & Wanderer Fantasy

Allegretto in C minor, D915
Piano Sonata in A, D664
Fantasy in C, D760 (Wanderer)
Piano Sonata in A, D959

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 24 June, 2011
Venue: Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, Suffolk

Elisabeth Leonskaja. Photograph: Jean MayeratElisabeth Leonskaja is one of the giantesses of the piano, a lioness. She clothes every phrase with velvet, but behind it lies a power which, when unleashed, is formidable. In this Schubert recital it was her highly individual manner of controlling the weight behind the tone which captured the attention. Her programme contrasted two sonatas in A major, D959 written in 1828, the composer’s final year; but, by way of preface, she played the Allegretto in C minor. Written in 1827 as a gesture of farewell to a naval friend being posted to Venice, Schubert’s characteristic fluctuation of mode from minor to major and back again can here be heard as the representation of sadness at parting alongside the warmth of friendship. In it can also be heard Schubert’s toying with his own farewell to life. It was these moments with their stabs to the heart that set up the emotional canvas for the rest of the evening.

Investing the opening of D664 with insouciant ease, Leonskaja’s focus on long arcs of phrasing created a balance combining the lyricism of a Lieder-setting with the fluidity of instrumental writing. There is something in the ambience of the Snape acoustic which feels as if it were designed for Schubert and this was the case here. In the finale, Leonskaja took quite a fast tempo, giving it an innocent and playful prettiness, offsetting this with a more pedantic approach to the triplets in the left-hand. Surprisingly, Leonskaja tossed off the semiquavers in the manner of mere virtuoso figuration, rather than each note having an expressive melodic value and it verged on the perfunctory.

In D959 Leonskaja’s approach had more gravitas. However, her attachment to the sustaining pedal, and also to the soft pedal, meant that the playing was overlaid with a misty cloudiness whose effect was of a sentimentality locked in the past. The interpretation of Schubert in recent years has changed perceptions of his sonatas from the spinning of endless melodies to something altogether more taut, if – to amend Schumann’s description – heavenly lengthy constructions. For all the richness and resonance of Leonskaja’s tone, the sense of overall architectural and classical clarity was felt to be lacking. Her inclination seemed to be to portray Schubert as an arch-romantic, yet a finer balance between classical and romantic would have been more persuasive.

Between the sonatas, Leonskaja played the ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy. The relative freedom of this work suited the naturally romantic bent of Leonskaja’s playing and she seemed to extend even further the range of volume she applied. Here too, in the harmonic language, intimations of the future to which the composer would not ultimately contribute were also poignant. As encores, Leonskaja offered two Impromptus, from D899, first the E flat and then the G flat. It was in this last that her playing appeared at its most relaxed, with the long, sculpted lines delivered less with sentiment than calm reverence.

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