Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Elisabeth Leonskaja @ Wigmore Hall, London

8 December 2010

Elisabeth Leonskaja graced a sold-out Wigmore Hall on Wednesday night with a performance of works by Schumann and Schubert that was full of verve and intensity.

Schumanns Papillons, which the composer wrote aged just twenty, is comprised of twelve miniature dance pieces, each linked with particular episodes from a masked ball scene that takes place towards the end of novelist Jean Pauls Flegeljahre. Leonskajas rich and incisive playing accentuated those more ebullient episodes, at times (such as when the pianissimo waltz theme of the sixth number returns triumphantly in the tenth) with a quite staggering dynamic energy. Her colourful and often declamatory style recalled the Beethoven interpretations for which she has become rightly celebrated, but there were moments when I might have preferred a softer tone. The playful ruminations of the fourth number, for instance, could have retained a far more casual air, while most of Leonskajas pianissimi were given slightly too much weight for my liking.

The Etudes Symphoniques (a series of piano studies that Schumann cast in the form of variations) seemed to accommodate more for this broadness in tone. Here, Leonskajas wilful and big-hearted playing felt more at home. The allegro molto of the sixth variation was effortlessly dynamic, paralleled by the powerful exuberance of the eighth variation. Her subtly inventive fourth variation and very Romantically affected ninth variation created a welcome contrast, while the highly charged finale yielded a strikingly assertive and powerful enthusiasm, even in spite of (or perhaps because of) an occasionally rushed tempo.

There was nothing apologetic about Leonskajas playing, and it became most convincing with her performance in the second half of Schuberts Piano Sonata in G, D894. The first movements chordal opening (along with its repetitions) was treated with asensitivity and a solemnity that nevertheless still managed to retain that characteristically incisive rhythmic propulsion. The cantabile lines were likewise given over to a sort of beautiful simplicity that never fell into the trap of sounding too delicate or nave in character. The Andante sounded at times as if Leonskaja were simply playing to herself, with a casual freedom that would certainly have made her Papillons all the more enjoyable an experience. A minuet brimming with contrast preceded the rondo finale, in which Leonskajas nimble touch on the rondo themes repeated chord patterns was quite brilliant.

Leonskajas ability to convey a sense of large-scale coherence and progression in her performance of Schuberts sonata remained one of the things (alongside the sheer power with which she seemed able to play) that struck me most about this concert. This internal consistency to her playing, which on the one hand may not have been ideally suited to the Schumann pieces, became something rather mesmerising when it came to the Schubert. All that remained was for Leonskajas two encores (a measured performance of the last of Debussys Prludes, Feux dartifice, and a touching Schubert Impromptu in A-flat, D935) to round off a thoroughly enjoyable night.

Further details of Wigmore Hall concerts can be found at wigmore-hall.org

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