A lunchtime recital at the Wigmore Hall is always a pleasure, and a welcome opportunity to pause for an hour or so to enjoy exceptionally high-quality music in a fine setting, and today’s concert, given by pianist Leon McCawley was no exception.

Leon McCawley  ©  Clive Barda
Leon McCawley
© Clive Barda

The common thread which ran through all the pieces McCawley performed was dedications – to pupils, patrons, friends and fellow composers – and, in a neat piece of programming, the concert coincided with BBC Radio Three’s ‘Portraits’ day. Whether the pieces presented were musical ‘portraits’ as such is debatable, but there was no doubting McCawley’s commitment to, empathy with, and infectious enjoyment of the music he performed: two Nocturnes by Chopin, Debussy’s suite Pour le Piano, and Schumann’s much-loved Carnaval.

Leon McCawley was the first artist I reviewed for Bachtrack, a year ago, and his Mozart playing impressed me then, with its attention to detail and sensitivity to both the melodic line and all the interior architecture of the music. This same clarity was evident in his performance of two of Chopin’s Nocturnes, the C minor Op. 48 no. 1, and E major Op. 62 no. 2. Both share a steady gait in the bass line (unusual, as many of the Nocturnes have an arpeggiated accompaniment), which provide a firm foundation over which the upper melodic line and harmonic architecture are hung. In the C minor piece this also serves to enhance the great breadth of the melody and the Beethovenian style and textures of the middle section. McCawley’s reading of this work was both passionate and stately, tastefully pedalled with an understated use of tempo rubato, which served to highlight the great virtuoso climax of the middle section. The E major, meanwhile, was richly hued, both in its harmonies and dynamic shadings, its tempo leisurely rather than strictly lento, its fioriture (opera-style melodic embellishments) delicate traceries. In both, Chopin’s interest in counterpoint was evident through McCawley’s ability to highlight all the different strands within the works with perfect weight and emphasis.

Debussy’s three-movement suite Pour le Piano is a nod back to his Baroque pianistic antecedents, in particular composers such as Couperin and Rameau. It’s also a display of real joie de vivre, especially in the outer movements. McCawley gave both the Prélude and the Toccata an infectious playfulness and insouciance, both in his physical gestures and his quality of sound, which combined Mozartian levity and delicacy of touch. The grand, almost tongue-in-cheek cadenza of the Prélude and its closing cadence sent up the silence perfectly for the Sarabande, which was measured and controlled, yet unmistakably a dance. There was also a pleasing stridency, particular in the upper registers, to remind us that Debussy’s music is not all about misty, impressionistic harmonic colourings.

Schumann’s Carnaval is a musical showcase of his mercurial personality, and an affectionate tribute to Schubert, amongst other musical portraits of his friends and colleagues. It was conceived as a series of tableaux of characters at a masked ball. A young man’s work of great spontaneity and inventiveness, it was played with warmth, richness, wit, tenderness and, at times, poignancy, suffused with intelligence and understanding, though the rambunctiousness of the party, and the foot-tapping melodies of the carnaval were never far away.

For an encore, McCawley played Liszt’s transcription of Schumann’s Widmung, a ravishing love song whose title translates as ‘Dedication’. It was delivered with the same clarity, conviction, and sensitivity of touch, and imbued with a profound romanticism.

Leon McCawley, pianoFrances Wilson reviews Leon McCawley's lunchtime concert of music by Chopin, Debussy and Schumann at Wigmore Hall.4