Seen&Heard Editor: Marc Bridle                              Founder Len Mullenger: Len@musicweb-international.com

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S & H Concert Review

Brahms & Tchaikovsky, Elisabeth Leonskaja (pf), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur, RFH, 15th March 2003 (MB)

 

There have been some notable performances of Brahms’ First Piano Concerto in London in recent years – but this performance was not amongst them. If Masur and the LPO gave the kind of accompaniment many soloists dream of receiving, but rarely do, Ms Leonskaja seemed almost oblivious to it. Whilst Masur coaxed tremendous lyrical beauties from the orchestra (some rather acerbic horn playing aside) Ms Leonskaja produced largely colourless, tonally flat playing from the piano. This was no more so than in the glorious slow movement, one of Brahms’ most spiritual creations, where an iron curtain descended between orchestra and soloist. Rarely, if ever, can this music have been played so dispassionately by a pianist of the front rank.

If the dry acoustic of the Festival Hall did little to brighten Ms Leonskaja’s steely finger work, muscular though it often was, especially in the first movement, her inaccuracy at the keyboard seemed only to emphasise how at sea she was in this concerto. Surprisingly, the double octaves were all in place during the first movement (and she gave a formidable performance of the movement’s recapitulation), although the finger work was much more painfully delivered than one might customarily expect. Where her technique collapsed was in the second movement – and this became a bitter contrast to the exquisitely refined playing of the orchestra, notably in the woodwind and horn octet where the tone was ravishingly delivered.

Masur and the LPO’s performance of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony came to an abrupt halt after the second chord on double basses and bassoon, the latter player clearly disturbed by the intrusive coughing which echoed around the hall during the symphony’s ghost-like opening. A pity, because when Masur restarted the symphony the playing appeared more restless and insecure than it had ever been before the interruption. Yet, Masur lavished enormous detail on this famous opening. The beauty of the LPO strings was something to behold, the profoundly dark grained phrasing of the bassoon a mirror to their sonorous depiction of the opening E minor tragedy.

But after all the uncertainty, this first movement developed into an almost ideal performance: the blistering, stormy fugato and the return of the first subject, taking the crescendo slowly so the anticipation of the fortissimo dialogue between strings and woodwind barely recoiled from the underlying tragedy of this movement, were little short of sublime. The almost Schumannesque way that Masur conducted the scherzo, and the rousing drama of the third movement’s March were superbly articulated – the LPO’s virtuosity collective, but never overwhelming individual contributions.

That now common practise of applause before the Adagio was scythed down by Masur launching immediately into the dark, austere opening of the first subject. Neither dragged out, nor over zealous, Masur lent the movement an inevitable destination – and this proved so with the second subject, those Tchaikovskian, dramatic pauses as peerlessly ‘sounding’ as the impassioned climax itself which melted into the ominous opacity of the gong. The despair was palpable, the darkness almost visible in a performance as searing as any you will encounter in the concert hall today.

Marc Bridle


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