In the cultural oasis of King’s Place, only five minutes from the noisy, bustling King’s Cross and St Pancras stations, British pianist Leon McCawley performed the complete piano sonatas of Mozart in a series of four recitals over one weekend.

© Sheila Rock
© Sheila Rock

McCawley’s unassuming manner belies an impressive c.v. He lacks arrogance or affected gestures when he performs, though it was quite apparent that he was thoroughly enjoying the music, a smile often playing across his mouth during the lighter measures. He also played from the score, proving that despite his exceptional technical skill and lucid, transparent delivery, he is, after all, only human!

Hall One at King’s Place boasts a fine Steinway piano and an excellent acoustic, and in McCawley’s skilful hands, Mozart sparkled, playful and elegant, vivacious and witty, inventive and fresh. Coupled with flawless technique, McCawley’s readings are neither overly romantic, nor too fragile. He lends seriousness where it is due, a delightful intimacy, or an orchestral richness, while also standing back to allow the music to speak for itself. His tempos are never rushed, and he cleverly, often subtly, shows Mozart to be a master of 'chiaroscuro', nuanced shadings, fleeting storms and sunshine, sometimes within the space of a single bar, fine contrapuntal writing, which harks back to Bach, and audacious harmonies which look forward to Schubert and Chopin

The Sonata in C, K545, “a little sonata for beginners”, may appear simple, but it is full of subtleties and modulations, all of which McCawley was careful to highlight, turning this “sonata facile” into a work of restrained sophistication. The Andante middle movement was particularly tender, McCawley demonstrating that something familiar can sound new and insightful.

The K533 in F, by contrast, is a study in virtuoso polyphony, and the apparently effortless textural flow of the Allegro reflects the influence of Mozart’s study of Bach. The triplet and semiquaver passages glittered with fine 'jeu perle' playing, each note perfectly placed, while in the Andante every nuance and colour was exactly thought out, highlighting unusual harmonic shifts and fleeting moments of poignancy. The final Rondo contains a remarkable fugal stretto (another allusion to Bach?) and a cadenza passage, leading to an unexpectedly low-key, somewhat contemplative coda. Here, again, McCawley’s delicacy of touch and crystalline articulation were very much in evidence, as well his profound understanding of Mozart’s rhetoric, wit and character.

The K570 in B flat may also have been intended for players of limited ability, with its unison opening figure suggesting a straightforward piece. However, the texture is quickly diversified into two equal yet distinct, duetting voices, which McCawley adeptly captured and highlighted perfectly.

The final sonata, K576 in D major, is one of the most virtuosic of all the sonatas, and opens with a motif redolent of a military bugle call. McCawley maintained a tempo that was brisk but never hurried, and his considered approach allowed us to hear and enjoy every single note. The slow movement, with its songful, melodic line and a section of profound poignancy and introspection, prefigures Chopin, while the final movement, played with a crisp, muscular virtuosity, looks forward to the piano sonatas of Haydn and Beethoven, the two hands competing equally as exponents of the main ideas.

As befitted such a beautifully measured performance, Leon McCawley played two modest encores: a Minuet in D, which he dedicated to Russian pianist Nina Milkina, and the Gigue in G, K574, its counterpoint wonderfully enunciated by the clarity of McCawley’s delivery. This was exceptional Mozart-playing of the highest quality.

*****