In Berlin’s newest chamber hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal, the audience sits around a central ellipse which contains the piano. The connection to the pianist is exceptionally close, and you also connect to the audience members opposite, watching their reactions to each shift in the music. That makes it a perfect hall to see Elisabeth Leonskaja, whose stock in trade is to extract the maximum of emotion from the music.

Elisabeth Leonskaja © Julia Wesely
Elisabeth Leonskaja
© Julia Wesely

There are pianists who produce crystalline perfection, with every note of an evening’s recital precisely in its proper place. Leonskaja is not one of them, and last night did not pass by without hesitation or deviation. But what Leonskaja does more than any other pianist I know is to maintain and put across a feel for the overall shape of a work – even a long work – from start to finish. Her notes may not be perfect, but every phrase is persuasive. Treading a path through Schubert with Leonskaja as your guide, there may be stumbles, but you have absolute confidence that you will remain safely on the right road.

The concert was bookended by a pair of A minor Sonatas, which clearly displayed Schubert’s evolution as composer. D.537, written when Schubert was not quite 20, shows a composer brimming with ideas who is not sure quite what he wants to become: there is Mozartian elegance, there are Beethovenian fireworks, there are even flashes of the delicate high register filigree that prefigure Chopin. The second movement has the Gemütlichkeit that we associate so profoundly with Schubert. Leonskaja’s high register was immaculately delicate from the off; the Beethovenian low register rumble started somewhat muddy, with low register clarity regained in the staccato passages in the second movement.

Just five years later, when Schubert wrote the “Wanderer” Fantasy, he had developed to a completely different level, and Leonskaja’s demonstration of this was convincing. We are on full Beethoven romanticism now, and Leonskaja generated immense force, almost to the point of violence, without ever sounding like someone bashing away at the piano. She could shift moods in a heartbeat, veering from violent con fuoco emotion to the most delicate of contrasting phrases and back again without the slightest loss of continuity. The Adagio was sublime, the lilt of the phrasing and the watery cascades transporting us to a place of utter calm. In the closing Allegro, we received a masterclass in the art of fugue – the ability to state a first theme powerfully and then maintain it while the theme that joins it wanders off in some completely different direction. By the end, the audience was completely under the pianist’s spell.

Some grit to the Schubertian oyster was added by two Second Viennese School pieces. Between the D.537 and the Wanderer came Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19. Where Schubert is expansive and developmental, Schoenberg is terse: the pieces range from 20 seconds to something over a minute, they contain an austere beauty and each one contains a full story – albeit one that is left to the listener’s imagination to fill in. I enjoyed them thoroughly, which I’m afraid I can’t say about Webern’s Variations for Piano, Op.27, which opened the second half. Several listenings before the concert had failed to attune my ear to finding anything other than randomness, and Leonskaja was unable to enlighten me.

Pierre Boulez Saal © Volker Kreidler
Pierre Boulez Saal
© Volker Kreidler

For the second half, the piano was turned 180° and moved to the other end of the hall’s central ellipse, giving most audience members the opposite view (keyboard versus pianist’s face). The 1825 Sonata in A minor, D.845 completed the demonstration of how far Schubert had come, how sad it is that he didn’t live longer, and how total is Leonskaja’s mastery of this composer. Her acceleration from first theme into the second theme was secure, the gentle themes were introduced oh-so-wistfully, the variations of the Andante were featherlight or weighty, the tricky key changes progressing as if they were the most natural things in the world. The good-humoured third movement and the flowing fourth brought the programme to a satisfactory close. We were then treated to two generous encores, both Schubert and both played with authority (the first of the Klavierstücke, D.946 and the third Impromptu, D.899), to send us into the wintry Berlin air with warmth in our hearts.

****1