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S & H Concert Review

Beethoven, Shostakovich; Leon McCawley (pf) London Philharmonic Orchestra, Kurt Masur (con); RFH, 13th December, 2003 (AR)

London’s Daily Telegraph described Leon McCawley as "a pianist of rare quality" and tonight’s concert amply confirmed this opinion. He leapt to international prominence in 1993 when he won both First Prize at the Ninth International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna and Second Prize at the Leeds International Piano Competition.

McCawley’s self-effacing playing of Beethoven’s C minor was totally at the service of the composer, stripped bare of rhetorical mannerisms. So transparent and seemingly perfect was his crystalline clarity - in tempi, tone and colour - that it did not feel like an ‘interpretation’, more the music itself, as written, note for note.

The pianist showed great athletic agility and total mastery of the keyboard in the Allegro, whilst in the Largo McCawley became both radiant and reflective, giving a frosted quality to the notes. The concluding Rondo was restrained yet full-bodied and buoyant.

McCawley demonstrated the supreme attribute of the virtuoso in concealing his formidable technique in the interests of the work – the true art which conceals art: at no time were we made aware of the pianist showing off with meretricious display. Instead he presented Beethoven as truthfully as possible. Baton-free Masur had total rapport with his pianist and gave a full-blooded reading, securing superb playing from the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the strings in particular having incredible weight.

Kurt Masur has a particular affinity with Shostakovich’s Symphony No.7 in C ‘Leningrad’ (1941) and tonight’s performance turned out to be a deeply moving and revelatory experience. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, surely one of the most ‘European’ sounding of British orchestras, was the ideal instrument to play this dark and dramatic score.

Masur conceived this ‘war’ symphony as a seamless whole where all movements were perfectly integrated as one expanding arch. The opening Allegretto established a forward thrusting momentum and urgency which became the hallmark of Masur’s dramatic and intense reading. The strings had great weight and darkness with that essential grainy-toned edge to them that is so essential for Shostakovich. The quiet entry of the side drum, accompanied by sedate pizzicato strings, was reserved, with the conductor very gradually building up the dynamics and this in turn created nervous tension. The manic percussion and raucous brass in the climaxes perfectly imaged the violence of war, with specific reference to the siege of Leningrad.

With the opening of Memories Masur adopted a sense of melancholic reserve making the soft strings glide with a lilting grace. The most eerie feature of this movement was the dark, brooding playing of Paul Richards’ bass clarinet sensitively accompanied by shimmering harps. Masur also brought out the grotesque elements in the score, some of which directly recalled Mahler, with manic, grunting sounds coming from the trombones accompanied by the percussion played with carnivalesque panache.

The violins in My Native Field had an extraordinarily strident, cutting edge which sliced through the ear with great intensity, with Masur coaxing them to play with incredible poignancy and depth of expression. This movement seemed to have an eternal breadth and desolation to it but it never sounded ponderous or fragmented. In Victory Masur conjured up a sense and a scene of tragedy with the starkly strident brass and desolate strings giving aural vision to a barren wasteland. The closing passages were overwhelmingly powerful, with the horns especially having great martial resonance, and the percussion section in full spate.

Masur and his outstanding players received rapturous applause from a packed RFH. A humble looking Masur held aloft the score as if to allow the composer to share the ovation. We are fortunate indeed that this concert was recorded for the LPO archive.

Alex Russell


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