As the year draws to a close, I thought I would review my year in music:

Goldberg Variations, Simon Devine, Purcell Room, March: The perfect way to spend a sunny, early spring Sunday morning. Harpsichordist Simon Devine brought immense colour, elegance, depth and humour to Bach’s greatest keyboard work.

End of Course Concert, March: My first “proper” performance in 25 years, as part of my teacher’s end of course concert. I amazed myself by pulling off a thoughtful and melancholy rendering of Chopin’s Etude Op 25/7, which has now become my “party piece”! The exceptionally high-quality of the music was a great inspiration, as was the variety: Chopin, Gershwin, Bach, Kapustin.

The Jerusalem Quartet, Wigmore Hall, March: A lunchtime concert memorable for all the wrong reasons, a concert during which politics and angry protest invaded the hallowed space of the Wigmore Hall and forced everyone present to contemplate the question “should music be above politics?”. The Jerusalem Quartet played on, despite the frequent interruptions. A disturbing, eye-opening, and extraordinary event.

Elisabeth Leonskaja Schubert recital, Wigmore Hall, May: A wonderful lunchtime concert which included several of my favourite works (Impromptu in F minor D935, and Impromptu in A flat D899, played as an encore), and confirmed, once again, what a fine Schubert-player Leonskaja is.

Lucy’s Parham’s ‘Nocturne’ at Wigmore Hall, July: A delightful and very moving evening of words and music by and about Chopin. Parham’s playing left something to be desired: she is unnecessarily flamboyant, and lacks finesse and accuracy at times, but the overall experience was delightful. Sam West was so good that very soon into the evening I truly believed he was Chopin!

Courtney Pine at Hampton Open Air Pool, July: A picnic with friends to the accompaniment of jazz-legend Courtney Pine’s full-bodied and exciting music, in his own tribute to Sidney Bechet. The best part was shaking his hand as he toured the audience at the end of the concert.

Olivier Messiaen’s ‘Quartet for the End of Time’, Wigmore Hall, October: The first time I’d heard this monumental work played live and in its entirety. Deeply moving, searing, painful and beautiful, it has inspired me to learn some of Messiaen’s piano music, and has piqued my interest in 20th century music in general.

Goldfrapp, Hammersmith Apollo, November: A rarity for me, attending a pop concert, but nonetheless a great night out. Interesting and unusual music, beautifully performed and visually and aurally arresting.

Students’ Concert, December: A lovely, fun and very enjoyable afternoon of music-making by my own students. The event was a huge success and I will be using the same venue for my summer concert.

Elisabeth Leonskaja, Schumann and Schubert, Wigmore Hall, December: Another great performance by this monumental “old school” Russian pianist. She never fails to please and I am already looking forward to her next solo recital in the late spring.

Handel’s Messiah, English Chamber Orchestra with Raymond Leppard, Rodolfus Choir, Cadogan Hall, December: A really fine Messiah with the superb ECO, youth choir and soloists, all under the baton of Raymond Leppard, a conductor who I remember seeing many times as a child. A lovely start to the festive season.

I fear I may have omitted some concerts from earlier in the year, and will make an effort to keep a ‘concert diary’ next year so that I don’t forget what I’ve heard. If there are any sins of omission here, I am sure Sylvia will point them out for me!

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.