***** (5 Stars)
During the April school holidays I was fortunate enough to be part of a school group that travelled to France. On the second last night we attended a piano recital given by former Soviet pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja at the Salle de Concerts which is a 1,600 seat concert hall at the Philharmonie de Paris. This is smaller than the main hall but it is perfectly suited for solo and chamber music performances.
This was a highly multicultural experience for our tour group. We had a Soviet pianist playing an all German program in a French concert hall being watched by a group of Australian travelers… and lots of locals too. It was a Wednesday night and the hall was at least 90% full.
It was soon easy to see why Leonskaja commanded such a large audience. She turns 70 later this year and has performed since the age of 11. She was noticed by Sviatoslav Richter who mentored her in her younger years and with whom she would publicly perform duets together. Leonskaja’s career has been concentrated in Europe and she has lived in Vienna since 1978. She has made numerous recordings and her repertoire, although fairly conservative is none the less representative of a Soviet pianist who has commanded a great deal of respect throughout Europe since the 1960s.
This recital comprised works by Beethoven, Webern and Brahms. Leonskaja opened energetically with the Beethoven Fantasia is G Minor, Op 77 which, although one of his lesser known solo works, is fascinating in that it is thought to be an actual improvisation that he took the time to write down. Her scale and octave passages flowed seamlessly throughout in what was a lively opening to proceedings. Webern’s Variations for Piano, Op 27 followed, and this gave the audience a brief six-minute insight into the mind of a composer creating a strictly 12 tone composition. It is a sporadic work with leaping passages and interchanging rhythms together with an unpredictable dynamic range. It took Webern over a year to compose it and despite its brevity, provides a number of interesting challenges to the pianist with connectivity between the three short movements proving to be a vital cog for the work to be understood and appreciated as a whole. It is a highly intellectual and abstract work. The audience was very receptive to Leonskaja’s performance, even if a few pages of her sheet music fell off the piano and ended up on the floor!
The first half of the program concluded with a brilliant performance of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No 17 in D Minor, Op 31 No 2, more commonly known as the Tempest Sonata. The influence of Richter was evident throughout her scintillating 20 minute rendition of this masterpiece. The clarity of Leonskaja’s rhythmic invention combined with her dynamic power resulted in a highly professional and exquisite delivery of this work which was written at a difficult time in Beethoven’s life, where his hearing was deserting him at a rapid rate. His frustrations and inner struggles are present throughout this sonata and Leonskaja gave an outstanding account and you felt as though the spirit of Richter was sitting beside her throughout.
After interval the mastery of Leonskaja again shone with an exhilarating performance of Brahms Piano Sonata No 3 in F Minor, Op 5. Despite being one of his early works, Brahms’ maturity is evident and his early skill as a composer/pianist is on show during this mighty 38-minute exposé. This is a marathon for the piano, one which requires a high level of energy and concentration from the performer. I found Leonskaja’s ability to contrast the five movements, yet bring them together as a whole, quite outstanding. She has an affinity with the Brahms sonatas, having recorded them back in 1990 on the Teldec label.
She was warmly received by the Parisian audience and the Australian contingent gave her the thumbs up as well. She responded by ending with three short encores which was extremely generous of her considering her effort to that point. She did it all with a big smile and she appeared to thoroughly enjoy herself throughout the two-hour journey.
It’s unfortunate that we will not get to see her on our shores… at her age, it’s highly unlikely and probably unnecessary for her to travel. She is an old school soviet pianist who has an extremely refined technique and a definitive respect for the score and for the composers’ musical intentions.
A superbly well thought out contrasting and dynamic program. It was a pleasure to be in attendance!
– Frank Shostakovich