The popularity of mercurial Elisabeth Leonskaja amongst audiences has never been higher, perhaps because she is one of “the last of the great Russian school” (Sean Rafferty), a performer whose heritage links her to one of the greatest, her friend and mentor, Sviatoslav Richter. Her musical outlook is fiercely independent, and not always to everyone’s taste. However, there was no doubting the enthusiasm of the Wigmore audience, as we welcomed her back for another BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Concert in which she combined the racy and rhetorical ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy D760 with the Allegretto in C minor D915, and the Sonata in A D664.

Elin Fflur Pritchard as Gretel and Beth Mackay as Hansel © RSAMD
Elin Fflur Pritchard as Gretel and Beth Mackay as Hansel
© RSAMD

She strides purposefully onto the stage, elegant in a long, cream skirt, and takes the most peremptory of bows, before sitting at the piano, anxious to begin.

The Allegretto in C minor could almost be a postscript to the Opus 90 Impromptus, in both its simple A-B-A construction, and its character. Written as a farewell to a friend of the composer, it draws much of its expressive depth from the constant see-sawing between minor and major. The marking “allegretto” is always open to interpretation: it is one of those rather nebulous, and very personal musical markings, like ‘moderato’. Perhaps in response to the extreme heat of this late-June day in central London, Elisabeth Leonskaja opted for a languorous tempo, which added to the plaintive quality of the music. The Trio was livelier, though the series of ‘sighing phrases’ seemed only to emphasise the all-pervading sense of regret.

With barely a pause to draw breath, she went straight into the sonata, the “little” A Major, so called to distinguish it from the more hefty 1828 sonata in the same key. Written c.1819, it is a work in which Schubert is beginning to find his mature, musical voice, and is one of his most popular sonatas, to which Leonskaja brought colour and warmth, grandeur and carefree lyricism, particularly in the second subject of the first movement. The tempo was spacious, if occasionally plodding, and the sweet nature of this movement was only briefly interrupted by more restless rapid octave passages before continuing on its tranquil course.

In the slow movement, another ‘sighing’ motif echoed the opening Allegretto, and there were some delightful passages played with an almost Mozartian clarity of articulation and phrasing, revealing the true essence of this graceful and rather wistful middle movement. The final movement, meanwhile, was playful and amiable, a reminder that this sonata was written by the same composer of the ‘Trout’ Quintet, and a nod also to the great sonatas of Beethoven, which Schubert admired. It is both virtuosic and nostalgic, and Elisabeth Leonskaja managed both with skill and humour.

The ‘Wanderer’ Fantasy in C is one of Schubert’s most popular works, and, for the pianist, one of his most technically demanding. Symphonic in concept, it successfully welds four distinct sections into a coherent whole. In Leonskaja’s hands, its famous, imperious opening, redolent of the throbbing first subject of Beethoven’s ‘Waldstein’ Sonata, was like a proud horse trotting, head held high. In contrast, the ‘Adagio’ was sonorous and hymn-like in its opening measures (a song quotation from Schubert’s ‘Der Wanderer’, D489), before moving into more turbulent territory: another sighing figure in the treble over an agitated bass. It was climactic and suspenseful, with menacing ‘tremolandos’, and some distinctly Beethovenian passages offset by moments of lyricism.

The Fantasy closes with a fugue, that most steadying of musical devices, and here Leonskaja fully harnessed the forces of the Wigmore’s Steinway to create the grand, orchestral effect Schubert envisaged for this movement. Played with a monumental sternness, it was here that Leonskaja stamped her mark most emphatically on the afternoon. This is clearly a piece she enjoys, evident from her total commitment and animated body-language throughout the performance.

Elisabeth Leonskaja is always generous with her encores, and today was no exception: Liszt's evocative 'Sonetto 104 del Petrarca', played in her characteristically independent style, with grand gestures shot through with moments of profound tenderness, and some beautifully articulated ‘fiorituras’.