The Indefatigable Elisabeth Leonskaja

Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja is not one for extravagant or flamboyant gestures: she strides across the Wigmore stage in the manner of a collective farm worker who has recently descended from her chugging tractor, her meaty, potato-pulling arms disguised in a soft brown velvet jacket. Seated at the piano, she is self-contained and workmanlike. There is barely a moment’s silence after the applause which greets her has died down before she begins, as if she is impatient to get on with the evening’s work. But from the sweeping opening measures of Schumann’s suite Papillons, there is no doubting her commitment, both to the music and the performance.

Papillons is a young man’s composition, written when Schumann was just 20. A suite of miniature dance pieces, it draws its inspiration from Schubert’s waltzes and four-handed polonaises, and the novels of 19th century writer, Jean Paul (whose pseudonym was Johann Paul Richter), and can be considered an early example of “programme music”. It looks forward to later  suites such as Carnaval, Waldszenen and Blumenstuck, while the influence of Schubert is obvious in the colourful and inventive harmonies, and the rapid changes of mood, dynamic and tempo.

This suite may be written by a student, but it is definitely not ‘student music’. After an introductory figure, not unlike the opening motif of Chopin’s First Ballade, the first piece is 16 bars of fast right-hand octaves, and many of the following movements employ similar devices, while others are lyrical and songlike. Elisabeth Leonskaja gave each movement the appropriate measure of weight, strength, delicacy, warmth and colour, highlighting the full range of Schumann’s moods, and his twin personas Eusebius (passionate, flamboyant, impulsive) and Florestan (dreamy, poetic, controlled)

The Etudes Symphoniques Op 13 are even more ‘bi-polar’. Written in the form of a theme and variations, these are Etudes in the manner of Chopin – i.e. intended as concert pieces which investigate the possibilities of technique and intonation. These are not variations in the sense of Mozart’s, but rather draw influences from Beethoven’s monumental Diabelli’s Variations in their arrangement and construction: aspects of the theme are used in subsequent variations, amplified and transformed, as opposed to a straightforward variant on the opening theme. There are moments in this work where, even if one knew nothing about Robert Schumann’s mental state (he suffered from what we now call “bipolar disorder”, one has the sense of a troubled mind at work. Some movements are simply manic, or thrillingly virtuosic (the 9th Etude is marked “Presto Possibile“, literally, “as fast as possible”!) Others are light and airy, or dark and sombre. An Allegro Brillante Etude brings the suite to its exciting, noisy conclusion.

This is “big” music, both physically in the demands it makes on the pianist’s hands with its rapid octave passages and wide hand-stretches, and, at times, in sound. Leonskaja harnessed the full force of her powerful, tractor-driver’s arms for the loud passages, while bringing delicacy, lightness and sweetness to the quieter sections. It is no accident that the Etudes Symphoniques are considered some of the most difficult music in the repertoire: Leonskaja made them look alarmingly easy. Added to that is her technical assuredness: there was not a smeared nor split note that I could detect in the entire performance, despite some unpleasant harmonics from the piano which at times displayed an alarming “twang”.

After such a grand, dramatic, and varied first half, we had a drink in the front bar, and looked forward to the second half, which was Schubert’s Sonata in G, D894.

I have heard Leonskaja play Schubert on several previous occasions, the first time being a fine performance of the last three sonatas. She has been criticised in the past for bringing a “Beethovenian” feel to her Schubert-playing, but I like the robustness. It also reminds us that Schubert admired Beethoven’s music, while striking out on his own after the Old Radical died in 1827. The G major sonata has an unusually expansive first movement, which contains a mixture of contrasting material, from the calm, hand-filling chords of the first subject, to the pretty and lyrical second theme. Marked “Molto moderato e cantabile”, it looks forward to Schubert’s last, great sonata in B-flat, the D960, in both its tempo and its deeply serene atmosphere, only briefly interrupted by a fff moment of violence in the development section. The subsequent movements are gentle, melodic, and largely untroubled, while the finale has the feel of a string quartet in the organisation of its textures and styles.

As in the first half, Leonskaja gave the full range of emotions and colours, highlighting Schubert’s extraordinary and unexpected harmonic shifts, and his innate lyricism. She is mistress of the velvet touch, perfectly judging exactly how much weight should be brought from finger to key to create exactly the desired sound, and despite more unpleasant twangs from the Wigmore Steinway, the Schubert sonata was memorable, moving and completely wonderful.

In true old-school Russian pianist tradition, she gave two encores, the first Debussy’s final Prelude, the other the second impromptu from Schubert’s D935 set. She played with the bouquet she had been presented at the end of the main performance on the lid of the piano, the pink and white flowers in their crisp cellophane wrapper reflected in the gleaming inside lid of the Steinway.

Elisabeth Leonskaja returns to the Wigmore Hall in 2011, for a concert with the Artemis Quartet on 17th May and a solo Schubert recital on 27th May, to include the Allegretto in C Minor D900, the Sonata in A D664, and the Wanderer Fantasy.

Click on this link to read a review of this concert on Classical Source.

3 Comments

  1. I am sad to have mist this performance. I heard it on BBC 3 radio tonight. Is there a recording of her playing Shubert sonata in G D894 somewhere?
    Would love to buy it !

  2. Hello Cross-Eyed Pianist,

    I found this blog via the Somewhere Boy blog, and was particularly fascinated by this article, as I had been fortunate enough to see ELizabeth Leonskaja give a few recitals of Schubert’s sonatas at teh Edinburgh Festival a few years ago. Sadly, I did not make it to all the concerts in that series (I missed out on the D960), but the ones I did get to hear were magnificent. Amongst other things, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the way she played the slow movement of the A major sonata (D959): that central section was cataclysmic, and I don’t know how she had the mental and physical energy to continue to the end after playing that. I heard her play the D894 as well, and it was grand and big-boned – and magnificent! I can’t really see why “Beethovenian” should be regarded as an adverse criticism of her playing of Schubert.

    I do enjoy reading your blog, by the way! All the best,
    Himadri

    • Thanks for your comments, Himadri. I have also come across your blog via Somewhere Boy, and I particularly enjoyed the alternative ‘Owl and the Pussycat’ recently! Leonskaja is a real find – I’ve seen her 4 times now and she has never disappointed. I also heard her play the D959 and remember it being monumental. Last winter at the Wigmore she demonstrated her ability to handle the most delicate Chopin: I think she knocks quite a few of the younger ‘upstarts’ into a cocked hat!

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