Spend an hour with Elisabeth Leonskaja: here. Whenever we have the opportunity to hear Leonskaja, we should take it. I have linked to a livestream of a recital from Wigmore Hall, in London. Leonskaja appeared there on June 27.
She is a pianist, born in the Soviet Union, in 1945. She left for Austria in 1978 and has lived in that country ever since. In 2006, the Austrian state awarded her its Cross of Honor, first class.
Leonskaja enjoyed a close musical relationship with Sviatoslav Richter, the great Russian pianist, who lived throughout most of the twentieth century. In 1964, Leonskaja won the George Enescu piano competition, in Bucharest. The next time the competition was held, in 1967, Radu Lupu won it, along with Samvel Alumyan.
The BBC announcer at Wigmore Hall relates a story, related to her by Leonskaja: on her very first day in Moscow, when she was eighteen, getting ready to study at the conservatory, Leonskaja met Lupu on the street.
She dedicates her Wigmore recital to Lupu, and to Nicholas Angelich. Lupu died on April 17 (having been born exactly a week after Leonskaja, on November 30, 1945). Angelich, also a pianist, died on April 18, at fifty-one.
The program consists of two sonatas, one by Mozart, the other by Beethoven. The Mozart is the much-loved, well-worn Piano Sonata No. 10 in C major, K. 330. I think of a saying usually attributed to Artur Schnabel: “Mozart is too easy for children, too hard for adults.” It is not too hard for Elisabeth Leonskaja. It is not too easy either. It is, manifestly, just right.
Her Mozart is mature—elegant and wise. But it is not without playfulness and “youth.” Her playing is fresh and lovely, evincing an appropriate spirit. It is, in short, Mozartean.
The first movement is like a cool stream on a hot day. In the second movement, Andante cantabile, Leonskaja discovers a lot of music. What I mean is: there is more music, even more drama, in this little movement than I previously suspected. The third and final movement is gay and stylish.
Such a civilized woman, this pianist.
The Beethoven she plays next is his final sonata, No. 32, in C minor, Op. 111. As a rule, I am somewhat reluctant to hear this sonata. It is great, of course—surpassingly great. It is also slightly disturbing. Many pianists approach the sonata with trembling awe, almost afraid to play it. It is the Last Beethoven Sonata, after all. The Final Word.
But did he know that? Intend it to be? Pianists are better off simply playing the piece, and playing it well. The music will speak for itself. And Leonskaja lets it do just that.
She tucks into the music, unafraid—even unimpressed, in a way. She makes big, fat, round sounds, without banging. Her trills—and there are many—are fabulous. The whole performance is endued with strength. Everyone knows that this sonata has sublimity and ethereality. Transcendence. But it also has plenty of the earth, and of blood.
When listening to Leonskaja play Op. 111, you can forget interpretation and simply listen to Beethoven, or commune with him. Which is a gift.
According to tradition, a pianist does not play an encore after Op. 111. It is—I confess I feel this way—a kind of final word. It should not be sullied by an encore. But Leonskaja, to my surprise, sits down for an encore, and it is Debussy: his Feux d’artifice. Leonskaja plays it neatly and dexterously, and with canny musicality. She is not through yet—she plays another encore. And this makes sense, to me: if you’re going to play an encore after Op. 111, you might as well play two (Like owning cats?). Leonskaja plays a great, profound song, Schubert’s Impromptu in G flat.
Personally, I would not have played an encore, after Beethoven’s last sonata. But it was—it is, in the video—a pleasure to hear Leonskaja play these two pieces. Mozart, Beethoven, Debussy, and Schubert, played by Leonskaja. That is indeed a civilized hour—an hour of greatness—and a welcome break away from both the tedium and the horrors of the day.