Elisabeth Leonskaja at Wigmore Hall – Schumann & Schubert

Papillons, Op.2
Etudes symphoniques, Op.13
Piano Sonata in G, D894

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 8 December, 2010
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Elisabeth Leonskaja. Photograph: Jean MayeratIt is probable that most people’s initiation into what has become the cult of Elisabeth Leonskaja has been via Beethoven and Schubert – in my case, the latter, for whose music she has proven to have a natural mastery and rapport. She started her sold-out recital, though, with Schumann, and it was remarkable how different her approach was. The twelve dances (mostly waltzes) of Papillons (Butterflies), based on an episode from the early 19th-century novelist Jean Paul and full of a specifically Teutonic brand of fantasy, can easily become a parade of character-pieces that don’t spare the whimsy and the sentiment. Leonskaja certainly had the measure of the music’s incisively defined characterisation, but some of these butterflies were a bit on the hefty side for the sort of magical, anarchic fantasy Schumann was trying to recreate. There was some wonderfully colourful playing, especially in the opening number (also familiar as ‘Florestan‘ in Carnaval), but the last dance had a weight and importance at odds with the music’s throwaway evanescence.

There was a similar, but more justified, inclination towards monumentalism in the opening of Etudes symphoniques, at the slow end of ‘andante’, and although Leonskaja’s playing was undeniably heroic for the ‘brillante’ finale, not even she could disguise the music’s rather hectoring repetitiveness. Leonskaja was superb in the bubbling ‘Presto possible’ and gave the restless, winding accompaniment of the ninth variation a Chopin-inflected melancholy – and her command of colour and tone reverenced the ‘symphonic’ aspect in the work’s title.

Orchestral ambition was a theme running through Leonskaja’s recital, more perfectly realised in her performance of Schubert’s G major Piano Sonata. This was her mentor’s Sviatoslav Richter’s favourite Schubert sonata, and although Leonskaja didn’t take the first movement’s ‘molto’ marking to the same degree as Richter did, there was a similar other-worldliness to her overview. The way in which she nudged the music to become slightly more volatile and troubled in the first-movement exposition repeat clinched its symphonic stature, and her playing had the sort of focus and eloquence to allow the smallest detail to register. On the printed page, the music looks simple, but it’s precisely its non-showiness that requires extremes of control, allied to a sure sense of structure. The sonata’s orchestral ambitions relaxed in the other three movements, and she judged precisely the lowering of spiritual temperature to allow for a robust, danceable finale, full of earthy good-humour.

In music that stretched the instrument’s make-believe capabilities, Leonskaja’s pedalling and varieties of touch and attack were terrific, as was her by-now familiar, uncompromising stage-manner. She prolonged the recital’s orchestral link with a dazzling ‘Feux d’artifice’ (the last of Debussy’s Préludes) as her first encore, followed by one of Schubert’s Impromptus.

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