Having recorded a great deal for Teldec in the 1980s and 90s, Vienna-based pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja is working her way leisurely through more modest selections from of the repertoire for the innovative German label, MDG. This Chopin recital follows solo discs of Schubert and Brahms, as well as a recording of the Mendelssohn concertos.
Released on Hybrid SACD with the label's customary demonstration quality sound, it's a disc that emphasises the quality of Leonskaja's formidable pianism, in which a fearsome technique is allied to a rare musical seriousness. The programme itself intersperses a selection of nocturnes with the four scherzos; one generic exception comes in the form of the favourite Fantasie Impromptu Op.66. The recital is performed on a beautifully mellow sounding 1901 Steinway model D.
The programme is also effective in its planning; it's nice to have all the scherzos together on the same disc but there's a benefit in having them separated. Nor are the Nocturnes Leonskaja has chosen slight miniatures, since we have here the big C minor Op.48 No.1, the D flat major Op. 27 No.2 and, to start, the F sharp minor Op. 48 No.2, as well as Op. 15 No.2 and the C sharp minor from 1830.
While the quality of the playing is beyond question, doubts soon begin to creep in as to whether Leonskaja's approach doesn't verge on the stern side, rather lacking in sparkle and, despite the virtuosity, excitement. For all the beauty of her Fantasie Impromptu, for example, the grand rhetorical statements that bring the fast sections to a close do not send a shiver down the spine as they can, even if her semi-quaver runs are a delight. Similarly, while the articulation of the bass-line at the opening of the B minor Scherzo is ominous and impressive, it detracts from the brillante finger-work in the right that should be a focus.
For me, too, there's a frustrating lack of engagement at times, such as in the C minor Nocturne, where there's little increase in passion as the final section reaches its climax; the playing is always impressive but I miss a feeling of surge to sweep the listener along. In the final two scherzos, however, which take a central part in the programme, Leonskaja is more totally convincing. Her octaves are imposing and virtuosic in the famous Op. 39, the central chorale and rippling ripostes are beautifully done, while the coda is unleashed with considerable power. In the E major Op.54, on the other hand, Leonskaja finds some of the lightness occasionally missing elsewhere. Her performance of the B flat minor Scherzo, Op.31, however, struck me again as rather earthbound, its grand rhetorical gestures understated and the quicksilver passagework lacking the necessary sparkle.
Leonskaja's Nocturnes are always beguiling and, the reservations regarding the C minor Op. 48 notwithstanding, most successful. Her phrasing is limpid and her ornaments always beautifully turned – the same goes for the central section of the Fantasie Impromptu – and this allied to a natural and subtle sense of rubato making her performance of the D flat major, Op. 27 No.2, particularly successful, even if I miss the veiled, moonlight sonorities some can achieve.
This is a carefully planned recital of genuinely heartfelt, often moving Chopin playing. Leonskaja's artistry is never in doubt, defined by an artistocratic technique, integrity and strong musical instincts. Chopin's mercurial side is sometimes missing in the scherzos and the heart is generally kept some distance from the sleeve, yet there is still much to enjoy.
By Hugo Shirley
CD Review: Chopin recitals from Hamelin and Demidenko (Hyperion/Onyx)
Concert Review: Elisabeth Leonskaja and the Alban Berg Quartet (QEH)
CD Review: Vol.1 of the Martha Argerich Collection on DG
CD Review: Chopin's concertos from Lang Lang and the Vienna Phil (DG)