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Elisabeth Leonskaja Plays Schubert at Wigmore Hall

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Elisabeth Leonskaya. Photo: IMG Artists.
Elisabeth Leonskaya. Photo: IMG Artists.

Elisabeth Leonskaja, piano

Wigmore Hall

June 27, 2011


Allegretto in C minor D. 915

Piano Sonata in A D. 664

Fantasy in C D. 760 ‘Wanderer’

Borscht and tears. It’s always fascinating — and enigmatic — to hear what a pianist will do with Schubert. The scores have few markings to lead the interpretation, and Schubert’s balancing act between simplicity and subsumed emotions is precarious. For a long time he wasn’t given the benefit of the doubt when it came to the basic issue of whether he knew how to write for the instrument. His sonatas, early and late, are marked by repetitiveness, peculiar key changes and abrupt mood swings that can seem eccentric, unless you accept that a genius knows what he’s doing even if we sometimes don’t. Beethoven tests a pianist’s moral character; Schubert tests a pianist’s ability to solve riddles.

In a way I’m giving a false start, because the veteran Russian pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja didn’t select especially ambiguous works for her recent lunchtime concert at Wigmore Hall. It was being broadcast, and the BBC presenter chatted us up beforehand, remarking that Leonskaja was the last in a great Russian lineage. We were meant to be suitably awed, and I must say she has the face of an icon made wise through suffering, her eyes sunken as if from long sorrow, her brow furrowed with deep creases. Sitting at the piano, Leonskaja wears a bemused expression, as if she is reading a poem and letting every word sink in.

These external signs led me to believe that she would play Schubert treading heavily in serious boots and favoring his melancholy over his sweetness.  And so she did for the most part.  The little Allegretto in C minor D. 915 was written as a farewll note to a departing friend, along the lines of Beethoven’s “Les Adieux” sonata, although the Schubert is much simpler, consisting of a beguilingly forlorn melody, an interlude, and the melody repeated. Leonskaja played it as a song without words, wth affecting, natural phrasing.

The popular Sonata in A Major D. 664 provides sun after the clouds part, and it has always been popular because of its three cheerful movements punctuated by a reflective slow movement. For me the greatest Schubert player after Schnabel was Sviatoslav Richter — a onetime duet partner with Leonskaja —  and in concert he brought out the stormy Beethoven side of this piece, which helps considerably to alleviate the sameness of many repeats and a perpetually sunlit landscape — I’m sure that Elysium must have an occasional thunder shower or it will be too much like Tucson.  Leonskaja went steadily through the score, applying the same expression and mostly the same mezzo forte dynamic throughout. She lost my attention along the way;  I was particularly disappointed at her poker-faced  finale, which is a whirling romp under Richter, spiked with staccato jolts here and there.

Which raises the question of whether we should refer to a Russian style of pianism anymore. Richter and Gilels dominated the scene for so long, beginning in the mid-Fifties, that the variety of Soviet pianism seemed to come down to them alone, the one volatile and mercurial, the other solid and authoritative. In fact there was considerably more going on — the release of a sheaf of recordings by Grigory Ginzburg, for example,  reveals a keyboard genius whose lightness and magical touch could never be mistaken for anyone else. Leonskaja came West to reside  and teach in Vienna in 1978; she’s now sixty-five and apparently no longer working at a conservatory. I’d characterize her as a lesser Gilels, gifted with his authority but not strong in imagination (neither was he).

The best part of her program was the last work, the “Wanderer” Fantasy. Although she had the fingers for the flashy difficulties of the opening and closing, it was the slow middle section based on Schubert’s bleak song, “Der Wanderer,” D. 493, that brought out her innate feeling for poetic tristesse.

The program notes pointed out how masterfully the entire Fantasy is based on the rhythmic motto that begins it — a dactyl of one long beat and two short ones, as in “hickory dickory dock.” Leonskaja kept the motto in our heads without thumping it out, and her idea of putting expression before technique, always a good one, made me hear this music freshly.

At the close of this one-hour noon recital (a regular feature between Wigmore Hall and the BBC) the audience cheered deliriously. They were rewarded with a Liszt encore, one of the Petrarch sonnets from the “Italy” book of Annees de pelerinage. I thought the pianist was more at home here than in Schubert, who tends to wither a bit unless special imagination is brought to his piano music. Liszt is more sentimental, single-minded, and canny about what the crowd wants. Much the same can be said of those emigres from the gray Soviet world if they expected to thrive on foreign soil. There was a reason for Leonskaja’s deep furrows, and leaving the hall I couldn’t help thinking of Mother Courage, in a production where she drags a Bechstein around the stage instead of that wagon.

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