Philharmonia/Järvi – 24 November

Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Piano Concerto No.2 in C minor, Op.18
Symphony No.5 in E flat, Op.82

Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Paavo Järvi

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 24 November, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The Georgian pianist, Elisabeth Leonskaja, who has been resident in Vienna for twenty-five years, is known for the solidity and straightforwardness of her performances.In an interview before a recent Musikverein recital (October 22, notable for a fine interpretation of Schumann’s First Sonata), she alluded to the immense influence of Sviatoslav Richter on her playing, specifically as a result of collaborating with him in Grieg’s four-hand versions of Mozart sonatas. Indeed, she does aspire to be a female Richter, fearless and powerful in her attack and choice of repertoire (the Brahms concertos, for example), consciously unsentimental, and more high-minded than witty.

At the start of Rachmaninov’s concerto, there was, however, little evidence that Leonskaja truly possessed a Richter-like authority. Järvi’s shaping of the opening theme was broad and colourful, though never indulgent, but it completely drowned the piano figurations. As orchestra and Leonskaja, who otherwise combined extremely well, adjusted, her simplicity was always a valuable corrective to the many over-romanticised interpretations of the piece, if at times over-deliberate and prosaic. The second movement in particular, was revealed as cogent rather than sweet; while there were moments of great poetry, it never quite tugged at the heartstrings.

The ’Finale’ was the most successful – Leonskaja’s approach well suited to the snap of the march-like rhythms, the drive and onward momentum of both soloist and conductor leading from elegant episodes to a dramatically satisfying end. If Leonskaja’s playing could be both splashy and unyielding, its purpose, its resolution, and the pleasure it gave were never in doubt.

All these works were composed within twenty-five years of one another. The Debussy enjoyed Järvi’s characteristic virtues of clarity and sense of structure. At the start of the Sibelius, Järvi’s ingenuousness, and his refusal to let expressive possibilities be at the expense of structure, gave the symphony a severe, almost bleak character. This was the Finland of monochromatic landscapes, infinite expanses of forests and lakes, more of nature than mystery, more of grimness than hope. Yet, as the symphony came to its famous conclusion, the brass chorale embodied ever-more strength of character, and the final chords, expertly spaced, left us, almost in surprise, utterly exhilarated.

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