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.

In the last thirty-six hours my musical life has gone from one extreme to the other, both in terms of genre and venue. Saturday night: jazz legend Courtney Pine at an open-air swimming pool. Sunday night: Chopin at the Wigmore Hall. Monday morning: my monthly piano lesson in Finsbury Park. All special and memorable musical experiences in their own way.

I nearly didn’t make it to the Wigmore. Living in leafy suburbia can be delightful, but on a Sunday there is a frustrating lack of trains into the capital, and if you don’t time your arrival at the station correctly, you can be left waiting for half an hour. It takes me an hour to get to the Wigmore from home and so in order to arrive in time for pre-concert drinks and chat with my friends, I needed to be on the train at 6pm. I arrived at the station, after a somewhat fraught consultation with my son about his plans for the evening (he is just 12, and has the sort of complicated social life no A-list celebrity would tolerate). Having established that he would be having a sleepover with a friend, I set off for the concert. Arriving at the station in the warm early evening sunshine, I wanted to purchase a bottle of water. I reached into my handbag: no wallet, and therefore no concert tickets. I had already missed one train by a whisker, and as I stomped back home to collect my purse, another train swept into the station. The next train was 20 minutes later, thereby denying me my pre-concert drink.

On reflection, I could have gone up to town without my wallet. Sylvia, my regular concert companion and the person who books all the tickets, would have been able to procure a replacement ticket for me at the box office, and I know she would have stood me a drink or two. I was pondering this while broiling on the Bakerloo line. I was alone in the carriage but for two men sitting opposite me, one of whom I recognised as the radio presenter Paul Gambacini. I have enjoyed his programmes, especially his music quiz and the one about the Oscars, but since it was a Sunday evening and he was clearly “off duty”, I didn’t tell him this. I followed him and his friend out of Oxford Circus station and across Cavendish Square, and when they turned into Wigmore Street, like me, I concluded they may well be attending the same concert.

At the Wigmore, the vestibule was crowded with people still hopeful of returned tickets. I bolted down the stairs to the loo, as far as it is possible to “bolt” against a tide of (mostly very) elderly people tottering up the stairs, and then followed the tide back upstairs to the hall. At the door, the young man who had been sitting with Mr Gambacini turned to me and said “Oh, hello! I saw you on the tube. I hope you enjoy the concert.” I was flattered that he had noticed me and said “It should be really lovely. Just the thing for a Sunday evening!”. We took our seats in different parts of the hall (I’m always near the back as Sylvia prefers economy to enjoying a good view of the stage). Sylvia was waiting for me, fanning her face with the very thin programme (“£3! For this!!” she grumbled), and soon after Gefry joined us, and we settled down for what promised to be a delightful evening of readings about and by Chopin – from his letters, from George Sand’s diaries and letters, and observations from other friends and colleagues who had known him (Lizst, Charles Hallé, Delacroix). The readers were the actors Sam West, who looked the part in his long velvet coat, and the painfully thin Harriet Walter. The pianist was Lucy Parham.

The mood of the evening was immediately set by the first piece, the Nocturne Op 48 No. 1, in which there is only momentary relief from its overriding sense of melancholy and poignancy. The readings were interspersed with music: Mazurkas, Polonaises, Waltzes, each half of the concert ending with a Ballade (the third and fourth). The music was not presented chronologically, rather it was selected to suit the mood or context of the readings. The whole thing worked very well; indeed, as the chronology of the readings drew inexorably towards the composer’s cruel treatment at the hands of Georges Sand marking the end of their relationship, and his tragically early death, there were some deeply moving moments. It is all too easy to present a saccharine, sentimental view of Chopin: the effete pianist with the delicate constitution and fondness for lilac kid gloves, coughing consumptively in a cheap, cold room in an unfashionable arrondissement of Paris. The romance and legend surrounding his death goes on: a Polish friend of mine told me that Poles believe he died of “zal”, that particularly Eastern European condition, an inexpressible longing for the homeland, because he could never return to the country of his birth. True, his music is imbued with “zal” – and trying to recapture that particularly untranslatable emotion is one of the most difficult things to do as a performer of his music – but listen carefully and you hear the sounds of nature too: the flora and fauna of Nohant, Sand’s house in the French countryside, which he loved.

In fact, if his letters to his friend and factotum Julian Fontana are anything to go by, the sickly “Chip Chip” (Sand’s nickname for him) was actually an astute businessman, demanding the best prices for his scores because he had bills to pay. And whatever one may speculate about his relationship with Sand, there was a time when she clearly cared deeply for him, as a lover, artistic companion, champion of his art and craft, and helpmeet when he was ill.

The Wigmore programme, entitled “Nocturne” was really charming, and if the piano playing was a little flat and sloppy in places, it didn’t matter. It was a delightful event, imaginatively presented, and I hope it may encourage similar evenings at the Wigmore.

I was planning to play Chopin at my lesson this morning (the E-major Etude from the Opus 10). Playing it at home before my lesson, I felt it really coming together (at last! After 8 months work on it!) but in the end there wasn’t time to play it for my teacher, as we were busy with Debussy, Gershwin and Poulenc. When I said goodbye to her, she urged me to perform the Chopin for friends, and then put it away for six months. This is wise advice: I did the same thing with Schubert’s D960 sonata, after working on it for over a year, by which time I had developed all manner of “issues” about it and was beginning to resent it. Playing it again after a long absence, I learned to love the piece again and I know I will revisit it, ready and willing to learn the rest of it.

In the meantime, my next challenge is a Chopin Ballade – not sure which one yet, but I was chuffed to bits that my teacher reckons I am at least up to it. “Not for the Diploma, just for fun!” were her parting words. I suppose it depends on what one classes as “fun”!!

The day ended with a trip to the cinema with my son, and my best friend and her kids to see ‘Toy Story 3’: unashamed escapism and the happy ending we all craved.