Elisabeth Leonskaja plays Schubert at Wigmore Hall

Piano Sonata in A flat, D557
Piano Sonata in E minor, D566
Piano Sonata in C, D840 (Reliquie)
Piano Sonata in C minor, D958

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 18 September, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Elisabeth Leonskaja. Photograph: Jean MayeratSchoenberg wrote that composition was a process of perpetual variation, and one aspect of Elisabeth Leonskaja’s genius is continually to exploit the relationships between notes and phrases that in Schubert on the page can often look unyieldingly regular. She chose two early piano sonatas from 1817, one of them, the E minor, in two movements, leading to the later, unfinished ‘Reliquie’ (also just two movements) and the late, great C minor Piano Sonata.

Leonskaja’s way into the genial A flat work was deceptively easygoing in music that sets out to charm. Then, in the slow movement, the opening of which could easily sound unremarkable, even vapid, she imperceptibly darkened the sound and dipped the music into pathos. There was a similarly discreet, corner-turning element of surprise in the finale, full of crisply articulated bar-bending accents, where she reined in a passage of high drama to return the style to its Biedermeier seal of approval. In the E minor, she gave us a hint of the larger, more symphonic scale of the later sonatas in the weight of the first movement before yielding to the amiable length of the Allegretto. Fast-forward eight years to the hugely different expression of the ‘Reliquie’, and the expansiveness of Leonskaja’s performance made its incompleteness satisfyingly whole, reinforced by her particularly powerful and extended rhetoric that takes no prisoners in the close of the slow movement.

Elisabeth Leonskaja has a special connection with Schubert, to the extent that you can fantasise that this is how Schubert would have played his music – those supercharged changes from major to minor and transformative, abrupt shifts to other keys, the piano’s approximation to orchestral effects that stretch keyboard technique with fiendish repeated notes and widely spread chords, or the way the closing shape of one phrase is subtly reworked to open the next. It seems that there is no connection or tiny point of reference that she doesn’t pick up on, and it really draws the listener in. Leonskaja possesses Schubert in the way she can sink into introspection and nihilism or explode with energy, and she is completely relaxed with Schubert’s lyrical discursiveness as much as she drives her overview of his large-scale structures.

All these elements, and more, burst out of her incendiary performance of the tragic C minor Piano Sonata, which combined mercurial responses to the music’s emotional range with majestic flair and brilliance. There may have been the odd slip, but her vision of this mighty work never wavered. I’ve been at Leonskaja recitals where she’s seemed grumpily dissatisfied with her performance. Here, I think, she knew she’d delivered a blinder. Her audience certainly did.

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