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Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano) Wigmore Hall, London 23.11. 2009 (CC)

Elisabeth Leonskaja is one of the finest pianists in front of the public today. Whether in chamber music (partnering such groups as the Alban Berg or Emerson Quartets), or in recital, her artistry and integrity speak of a bygone age. Her Schubert on Dabringhaus und Grimm is one of the high points of her discography; no wonder Sviatoslav Richter held her in such esteem.

Leonskaja is a foremost interpreter of Chopin, on the evidence here. The programming itself was inspired: the two mature sonatas were framed, contextualised and linked to slighter, but not necessarily any less significant, pieces. She began with the two Polonaises, Op. 26 of 1835. These two pieces make a superbly contrasting pair, the robust C sharp minor (no trace of any frailty here, and the delivery was technically impeccable) setting the E flat minor’s darkness into high relief. The E flat major Nocturne, Op. 55/2 (1843) was notable for its emotional kinship with Op. 26/2, its restlessness all the more disturbing for being understated.

And so to the meat of the first half, the B flat minor sonata, Op. 35. Here impeccable control met seething passion. The exposition repeat was back to the Doppio movimento and not, as is currently the fashion, the very opening Grave. Leonskaja underlined the adventurousness of the development, while always maintaining clarity of voice-leading. Despite the flighty, quixotic, quicksilver Scherzo, one was constantly aware of the organic nature of the work, that there is an underlying organisational force at work. The harrowing Funeral March included a rare miscalculation (a mis-voiced resolution of a suspension just prior to the return of the opening section), but was nevertheless a study in stark blackness. One only registered the perfect left-hand trills in passing. Finally, the disjointed, skeletal finale (with an absolute minimum of pedal) confirmed the disturbing nature of Leonskaja’s reading.

The Third Sonata was actually scheduled to follow after the interval but a reshuffle meant that we heard the Op. 61 Polonaise-Fantaisie and the Op. 48/2 Nocturne first.The mystical, veiled Op. 61 is an intriguing piece, a kind of ghost of a polonaise. Leonskaja emphasised the polonaise rhythm more than most, contrasting it with moments of true tenderness. The exquisite F sharp minor Nocturne ked to a commanding Third Sonata. Leonskaya’s expansive approach to the first movement, her gossamer-light Scherzo and the stormy finale were her at her finest; only the Largo lacked the final ounce of intimacy. A remarkable concert, and one that reconfirms this pianist’s stature.

Colin Clarke


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