Tuesday 27 July 2010
An Olympian in the Alps
I've turned Schubert-crazy again. As with Wagner, the mania comes and goes in waves. It all started with The Greatest Piano Recital I've Ever Heard, Richter's at Chichester Cathedral in March 1989, when he took an hypnotic half-hour over the first movement of the G major Sonata (D894). Then I hunted out all his recordings of the sonatas, and found his heavenly length the only way I wanted to hear Schubert. Now his one-time duo partner and protegee Elisabeth Leonskaja has come out from under the Richter shadow and forged her own great interpretations. And it's the palmy days of Richter all over again, though with a very different musical personality at the helm.
At Verbier high in the Alps, where I've just been privileged to spend three and a half music-and-walking-packed days, Leonskaja is currently working her way through the complete Schubert sonatas - half of them for the first time ever, as she told me in an interview which will appear probably around the time of her return to London to play D894 later this year. She clearly had as much smiling affection as I did for the first of the three late-night programmes I was privileged to hear in the vast temporary construction of the Salle des Combins. There, having moved from an apparently disastrous encounter with a poor piano and rough acoustics in the Verbier Cinema, she played the Sonata in B major, D575, and the unusual five-movement E major, D459. Hardly a couple of bars pass without Schubert revealing his own lovable, harmonically wayward personality, and you can rarely predict the progress of a melody (the third movement of D459 struck me forcibly in this respect).
So what is it that makes Leonskaja's Schubert so special? I came late to her extraordinarily deep and thoughtful concert-hall approach - music as a sacred rite - with the second half of her Chopin recital late last year. Here, it seemed, the range was extended. She can indeed be as Olympian as Schubert himself (her word for the opening movement of D850), with that fabulously weighted full sonority; but she catches the essence of his ability to leap from the thunderously epic to the intimately lyric. So we ranged - forgive the corny images prompted purely by a desire to put up a couple of Verbier snaps - from the babbling, high-altitude brook of D850's delicious finale
to the forbidding heights, glaciers and cataracts that disrupt the ineffable slow movement and finale of D959 (a performance which brought an instant standing ovation, as the colossal D major Sonata should have done the previous evening).
The articulation is phenomenal, the emotional commitment total. And the stern, concentrated figure on the platform is in extraordinary contrast to the vivacious, humorous woman you meet offstage - though one thing, a great humanity, connects the two.
And for now I'd better stop waxing lyrical, return to Verbier another day (due for a big Arts Desk piece on Sunday) and just count myself lucky to have heard great pianism in hugely contrasting styles, from Lewis and Pires at the Albert Hall on Wednesday to the 18 year old Kit Armstrong pouring forth musicality and playfulness in a Verbier trio concert and, of course, Leonskaja magisterially at the heart of it all.