Elisabeth Leonskaja: Schubert

Piano Sonata in C minor, D958
Piano Sonata in A, D959
Piano Sonata in B flat, D960

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 1 November, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Elisabeth Leonskaja. Photograph: Jean MayeratElisabeth Leonskaja is noted for her big muscular style. How well this one-size-fits-all approach would suit late Schubert was open to question. Whatever the artistic outcome, you certainly have to admire any pianist who essays these three masterworks in one sitting.

The first subject of D958 was crashed out at a fast tempo, while the second was too slow, over-pedalled and lacked any sense of line. In the slow movement the tempo was relaxed and there was a sombre hue to the tone, but I could discern absolutely no emotional core. This was sound and little else. There was rather more character in the scherzo, where there was some impressionistic detailing. At the launch of the finale the fingerwork was delicately refined, but this soon gave way to frenetic attack.

Inevitably the opening of D959 got the full ff treatment, with a substantial slowing for the second subject. But there was little sense of inevitability, or true emotional content, and it all became garbled by constant changes of dynamic and tempo. Leonskaja was slow in the Andantino, but the sense of song was retained. In the central section’s assault on tonality the sound was Lisztian and the closing bars of the movement brought some beautifully blurred phrasing. There was nothing blurred in the furious attack on the scherzo but the trio was too slow and it all became rather blandly aggressive. The great finale lost focus and meandered along. Once again the pianist seemed to have no clear idea what the composer intended.

The expansive final Sonata does need the performer to make some emotional choices, if sense is to be made of the first movement. Unfortunately Leonskaja offered no more than sound and irritating micro-dynamic contrasts. Much the same could be said of the slow movement; however there was some compensation in the beautifully hypnotic conclusion the central section. The last two movements contained marked tempo contrasts and rhythmic variation, but there was little to suggest emotional grasp or commitment.

Rather remarkably – since the concert had already lasted two-and-a-half hours (in each first movement Leonskaja had observed the exposition repeat) – there was an encore, a songful account of the G flat Impromptu from the D899 set. Despite serious reservations about the playing the evening clearly demonstrated that were it not for Beethoven, Schubert would be the greatest composer of them all and one felt privileged to have heard three such towering masterpieces together.

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