Klavierstücke, Opp.118 & 119
Piano Sonata No.2 in B minor, Op.61
Preludes & Fugues, Op.87 [selection]
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)
Reviewed by: Rob Pennock
Reviewed: 9 February, 2006
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London
There have been several recent concerts, the programming of which has been less than judicious – this was another. One set of late Brahms pieces is fine but three is indulgent: there is only so much elegiac musing combined with repetitive rhythmic variations, ternary construction and major-minor key pairings one can take at a single sitting. Elisabeth Leonskaja would have done better to play more of the marvellous Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues.Leonskaja’s approach to the Brahms was nothing if not consistent. She used both pedals sparingly, which gave unusual clarity to pieces that can sound cloying, and her rhythmic attack was always exact. However, in the opening Capriccio of Opus 116 the tempo was not quite presto and the G minor Ballade of Opus 118 the attack was strong but not energico. Indeed, in all of the faster pieces there was an element of didacticism in her playing. In the numerous andante pieces there was delicacy and an air of improvisation, yet rubato lacked a sense of natural ebb and flow – Leonskaja thinking in terms of bar groups rather than from note to note or phrase to phrase.
There was also a lack of real sympathy. Late Brahms should never be sentimental, but in the opening adagio of Opus 119 a greater sense of impending mortality was needed, and the first piece of Opus 118 simply lacked gravitas. Her wrists and fingers in faster pieces were very stiff, as were her head and torso movements.
The Shostakovich sonata divides opinion; for some it is a challenging study in the development of monothematic material while for others it is overlong and unfocused. Here again, Leonskaja was emotionally detached: the first movement’s march was powerful but not frightening, while the opening lacked a true sense of calm. The central Largo was played slowly and with greater use of the sustaining pedal and dynamic shading, but in the last movement the tempo was just fractionally too slow. the music seeming rather aimless as a result. However, Leonskaja played the epilogue with beautiful tone and repose.
Frustratingly, the best playing came in the two Preludes and Fugues: here the massive octave opening to the G major was formidable while the Fugue was exemplary in its clarity and power; in the D major, the bell-like textures were eloquently sung while the Fugue had precision and force. I should like to have heard more of these works from this artist.