It is only in the past couple of years that Elisabeth Leonskaja has made Mozart prominent in her recitals, and apart from a recording with her friend and mentor Sviatoslav Richter of Sonatas arranged for two pianos, Mozart does not figure in her discography.
You wonder why this seventy-three-year-old Russian-Austrian keyboard aristocrat, with a hotline via Richter to a noble virtuosity reaching back to the nineteenth-century, should take on the Classical style at its most limpid and most cruelly exposed at this stage of her career and then share it with a masterpiece by Alban Berg and a serial creation by Philip Herschkowitz. This may have explained the number of empty seats for an artist who is used to sold-out houses.
Leonskaja is one of the few pianists consistently to lift the lid on the spiritual and psychological possibilities raised by Schubert, Beethoven and Brahms, and her insights have become holy writ for many a listener. She must be aware of the factors jostling for supremacy in Mozart’s inimitable balancing act of harmonic clarity, surface and depth, games of consequence, and the stretching of formal securities (and that’s just for starters) that create a seamless ideal. Leonskaja’s substantial, non-period style didn’t exactly upset the Mozartean apple-cart in her choice of three 1775 Sonatas (all in major keys) and the larger-scale K310 (one of only two of the eighteen in the minor), but explosive contrasts, pressurised Prestos in a couple of Finales, and some surprisingly irregular phrasing distracted the whole picture, and her observance of all repeats drove a bit too close to a monumentality that is here not in Mozart's brief and made for a notably lengthy evening.
She was very much at home in K310, effortlessly conveying the maestoso aspect of the first movement in a way that both contained and heightened the music’s hysteria, and the Schubertian lyricism she brought to the highly charged slow movement was very persuasive. The opening movement of K284, every bit as ambitious as that of K310, brought a longed-for Olympian exuberance, very much Leonskaja territory, and the Variation Finale included an Adagio cantabile of epic refinement.
Romanian-born and Moscow-residing Philip Herschkowitz (1906-89) studied with Berg and Webern, and he fell under the latter’s spell in terms of serialist compression and clarity. Leonskaja played his Klavierstück – a suite of four movements – with a sure appreciation of its dance elements and a foot on the threshold of cabaret, but serialism, especially in shorter works, carries its own pan-expressive agenda which in the end negates itself, and Herschkowitz doesn’t persuade you otherwise.
Leonskaja’s account of Berg’s Sonata took no prisoners as she hedged her bets between late-romanticism and Second Viennese School expressionism with a majestic command of the music being on the cusp of orchestral aspiration. Layers of tone and timbre were as vital as her overview of theme and form, and she added a mysteriously redemptive quality to the work’s inescapably tonal close.
Her encore was all part of the programme’s format, Schoenberg’s Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Opus 19.