Tuesday, 25 July 2017
Leonskaja's Schubert: CD gold
'Who are your idols?,' I once asked a colleague while we were waiting to record a BBC World Service chat in Bush House. 'I don't have idols, I'm a professional critic' came the ludicrous reply. Well, just as I haven't 'grown out of' Der Rosenkavalier, as another pompous Brother in Apollo told me I would, I still have idols, and Elisabeth Leonskaja is the living pianist I'd rather hear more than any other; readers of The Arts Desk will know that I cover every UK appearance of hers that I can, and I still count it as one of the musical highlights of my life that I got to hear four late-night concerts in her 2010 Schubert cycle at the Verbier Festival - the first time she'd ever tackled them all - even if the Verbier experience per se wasn't an especially happy one for either of us (I've no desire to go back, much as I loved the solitary walks in the heights).
My seminal experience in Schubert's piano music dates back to March 1989 and Sviatoslav Richter's Chichester Cathedral recital, when I first heard the heavenly and hypnotic length at which he unfolded the first movement of the G major Sonata D894.
Leonskaja has her own very distinct voice in Schubert, but as Richter's protégée she was bound to follow his example in several respects (there's also a DVD on the lavish set I'm discussing here of the two playing Grieg's two-piano transcriptions of three Mozart piano sonatas and C minor Fantasia which I have yet to watch). One is that you don't EVER omit a Schubert repeat. When I interviewed her in Verbier, she recalled Richter's demands of students who dared to cut the inspiration short: 'what, you don't love Schubert's music?' And how the hell did Brendel dare to inculcate in pupils like Imogen Cooper a truncation which would mean omitting as inspired a passage (eight and a bit bars of first-time link back to the repeat) as this?
That of course occurs in arguably the greatest, certainly the most heavenly, of all Schubert's sonata first movements, the Molto moderato of D960. Unthinkable not to have the seismic rumble the only time it appears ffz in the movement (though apparently there's been some debate about the dynamic marking). We get all repeats, of course, on the four CDs in eaSonus's luxurious presentation - and never have I been happier to see such a homage, made to follow on the heels of Leonskaja's 70th birthday in November 2015. It comes with 48 pages of mini-biography in the form of more in-depth interviews than mine, enriched with a fine selection of personal photographs you won't have seen anywhere else. I have to quote two specific answers by the great lady. One is to the question: 'what do you try to pass on to students in a master class?'
1. Love of music.
2. Respect for the composer.
3. Avoiding laziness.
4. Self-confidence without arrogance.
5. How to master the technique of playing the piano freely. In Moscow they used to tell us over and over again to sit comfortably and play freely and that's my approach now. That means free thumb (very important!), free elbows and wrists, and sitting comfortably at your instrument. All this leads to an unobstructed energy flow. At the beginning I find all this much more important than to work on the details and specific aspects of a particular piece.
6. It's very important for me to be friendly, without too much finger-wagging. I simply concentrate on whatever I believe is blocking the student's progress.
7. Passing my experience on to students without being condescending to them. It is essential to have a good atmosphere in order to work intensely and constructively.
8. During the lesson, life takes a back seat, only music is important while we work. Teaching is an intimate and transcendental moment.
And to 'What are your sacred rules, your everyday doctrine?':
I think every day about what [Heinrich] Neuhaus [the greatest of pedagogues] used to say: 'Don't look for yourself in the music, but find the music in you'.
And Richter always used to say, 'It is not the what that matters, but the how'.
The 'how' of Leonskaja's Schubert I've tried to grasp over the years, but its essence is absolute clarity, an ability to switch from well-weighted orchestral pianism (something I always think of as the essence of the Russian school) to delicacy in a split second. She talks of wanting the public to have left a concert 'with the feeling of having found the grail', and that's happened to me, right from the first re-connection in the second half of her Chopin recital back in 2009. In the performance of the 'Trout' Quintet at Crail Church as part of this year's East Neuk Festival, I found myself within minutes of the first movement's beginning in that profound state of transport yet total awareness you only get in the best meditations. It's a shame there wasn't an official photographer to document her appearances; my post-performance shots, taken without flash of course, are inevitably fuzzy. See this as an imperfect souvenir.
Nothing is more phenomenal than Leonskaja's 'Wanderer' Fantasy, like the work itself an encyclopedic wonder of the world - I hope a recording will feature on the sequel to this set, due early next year - but she can also be wry and funny with total lightness, as in the finale of the 'Gasteiner' (D850). The physical energy and focus of D958's tarantella-finale are something you have to experience live to quite believe. And not even Richter produced as much shattering power as the time-bomb of D959's slow movement explodes at its terrifying heart.
I'm so grateful to Leonskaja, too, for proving that Schubert's quirky and lovable personality is there right from the first, five-movement sonata, D557, which I heard both in Verbier and Crail (again, I trust it will be included in Volume Two). The relatively early A minor Sonatas sound pretty miraculous in her hands, too; D784 is simply colossal. It's only when you get back to the last five that you realise the difference between great and supernaturally great. Here's to many more years of performances; in her seventies Leonskaja has lost nothing of the strength and clarity which are her trademarks, so there's no reason she shouldn't carry on as long as she wants to.
By way of a Schubert footnote, though it deserves pride of place and should have been included in my 'Music for a few' post, the duo recital of Martino Tirimo and Atsuko Kawakami at the Reform Club back in May (pictured above) reminded me very movingly what a great masterpiece is the F minor Fantaisie D940. Martino, a real gentleman and a seriously underrated top interpreter of Schubert, Mozart and Chopin, understands the ethereal yet still humanly bittersweet quality of late Schubert so well, and the sound of his former pupil was perfectly co-ordinated to match (Martino took the lower part).
The real surprise was Eduard Langer's transcription of Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite - on the above front page it's clear that Tchaikovsky made the one for two hands, Langer for four - reminding one just how elaborate the composer's genius is in these miniature gems and how wonderful the counterpoint. An especially lovely touch was Atsuko side-tapping a tambourine for those essential ta-ta-ta-ta-taaas in the Arabian Dance. Afterwards I asked if they knew Rachmaninov's similar transcription of the Sleeping Beauty Suite, which they didn't, so I loaned the score to Martino when he came to the Frontline Club. Looking forward to their performance of it. Though if that, too, is to be at the Reform Club, the promoters will have to work a bit harder to get more folk in the audience than they did. These first-rate musicians deserve much better.