There are some concerts where everything comes together, where the music is perfectly suited to the performers, and the hall is perfectly suited to their playing style. Last night’s concert at Saanen Church, in which Elisabeth Leonskaja joined Wojciech Rajski and his Polish Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra to play Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4, was just such an occasion.

Elisabeth Leonskaja © Miguel Bueno
Elisabeth Leonskaja
© Miguel Bueno

The evening started gently enough with the Mozart Cassation in B flat major, KV39. It’s not exactly one of Mozart’s greatest hits – a Cassation is a little remembered form of orchestral suite – but it gave the orchestra the chance to warm up and the audience the chance to appreciate the virtues of the sonic quality they achieve. The individual instrument playing was luminous, the balance impeccable and the degree of togetherness palpable; the result was a delicate Mozartian sound that refreshed the senses. I’m not sure it made too many converts to the particular work, but it put us on notice of the quality of playing that was to follow.

The Classical Symphony is a remarkable work in which Prokofiev set out to imagine the sort of symphony that Haydn would have written had he lived in 1917. Prokofiev felt that Haydn would still have been discernably Haydn, but that he would have absorbed many modern compositional features. Therefore, he wrote a work that perfectly follows the form of a Haydn symphony, but uses a larger orchestra and incorporates many melodic and harmonic tricks that are pure Prokofiev.

The playing excited from the very beginning, where the heavily accented chords on strings were so together as to have terrific impact and the woodwind skirls that accompany them came through clear and bright. It’s here that the qualities of the hall were so evident. This is a work that you couldn’t really play in most English churches, where the reverberation of stone buildings would turn the Prokofiev’s intricate patterns to mush. But in the wood and plaster panelled surroundings of the 1604 Saanen Church, every note was crystal clear. Playing of this clarity was a delight in the second movement, which combines a straightforward cantabile with a succession of different contrasting themes, some on high strings, some on woodwind. Throughout the work, Prokofiev continually shows a very Haydnesque sprinkling of little musical jokes, and a very un-Haydnesque ability to have more than one totally different musical idea running in parallel – but somehow combining in a thoroughly satisfying way.

The last two movements are more pictorial. The short third movement gavotte and musette will be familiar to many as the opening of the Capulets’ ball in the ballet Romeo and Juliet, a portrait of heavy-footed courtly elegance, while the scurrying fourth movement is simply madcap, with the string section showing amazing attack on the rising figures that puncuate the movement, and the woodwind tracing patterns around it at a frantic pace.

If the Prokofiev was an immaculate rendition of a well loved work, Elisabeth Leonskaja’s performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 was a revelation, in a style utterly different from anything I’ve ever heard.

It seems to me that there are two fundamental approaches to a concerto with a lot of rippling notes: one is to make every note count (very much the approach I heard from Murray Perahia at the Proms last year), the other is to deliberately blur those rippled notes into phrases. Leonskaja takes this second approach to extremes; what is extraordinary is her ability to shape those blurred phrases using smooth variation in dynamics and in the fine details of timing. The effect is that you’re no longer listening to notes, or even to a metronomically delineated sequence of them: you’re listening to waves that rise and fall, accelerating and decelerating in mid-wave to suit the mood that Leonskaja wishes to put across. I’ve never heard a pianist who can exert such fine control with such smoothness.

Rajski is not a flamboyant conductor – he looks very matter of fact and straightforward on the podium - but he obviously has his orchestra drilled to the nth degree, because very subtle movements were enough to get them following and responding to Leonskaja’s variety. The result was an interplay that always felt completely natural, and high levels of emotion coming from both soloist and orchestra – a truly Romantic concerto, if anyone needed reminding of it.

I’m sure Leonskaja has plenty of encores in her repertory, but perhaps not too many that have been rehearsed with the orchestra, so when the audience clamoured for more, they gave us a repeat of the third movement, a practice that would have been common in Beethoven’s day but is rare in ours. It gave us the opportunity to savour once more the talents of a unique performer and a very unusual orchestra.