For a description of Elisabeth Leonskaja’s formidable and eloquent pianism I find myself drawn to the opening bars of Rachmaninov’s G sharp minor Prelude, given in this concert as an encore. Fierce attack and rigidity in the right-hand semiquavers brought harshness to the rapid movement of the opening, though when the rhythmic pattern repeats itself you realized how perfectly even and, by extension, desensitized it was. Odd scene-setting, and far too resistant to being pulled around, one might think, for the plaintive melody introduced in the left hand, and it is difficult enough to maintain that kind of contrast, let alone make it communicate something. But that Leonskaja did with clarity and economy, and the world her quick brushstrokes painted was one of grim futility and stifled self-expression. As the piece progressed, competing impulses took hold and asserted themselves with increasing urgency, ultimately only to subside as rapidly as they had intensified, leaving the sparse texture and muted voice of the opening (and that, curiously unaltered). Many things were communicated here, some of them ambiguously but all coherently, and always with an ear to how they would hold up as musical architecture. Another encore, this time the (in)famous prelude in C sharp minor, was a masterclass in touch, with Leonskaja making something inexorable and oppressive of the incessant perfect cadence motif while relieving the severe octaves of much of their customary weight.

Elisabeth Leonskaja © F.Mouries
Elisabeth Leonskaja
© F.Mouries

Leonskaja’s playing is however too full of contrasts to be bleak and foreboding all the time, as the many moments of lightness and tenderness in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 2 demonstrated. The opening of the third movement had boisterous spirit, even if it slyly hinted at Shostakovich in one of his more repetitive modes, and while Leonskaja stayed true to the big lyrical themes they didn’t ooze schmaltz in the way one normally dreads. Her statement-like opening chords didn’t give much away either, and much of the time there was an intimacy to her playing which somehow sat cogently alongside the darker and more intense passages.

I was less impressed by Cornelius Meister’s contribution here and felt that he was allowing the cellos too much of the excess which Leonskaja kept at bay. The woodwind and first violins were sharp as buttons but the interest they brought to their parts was lacking in other sections of the orchestra. I never hear lackluster playing from these musicians under Meister’s direction, but there weren’t many features to this performance beyond the routinely lyrical, and much of the time they were too loud for Leonskaja.

After the interval I could see that the orchestra’s efforts in rehearsal had possibly been devoted more to Martinů’s Symphony no. 4, for this was a very fine performance indeed. The work was written at the end of the Second World War and is in many ways a musical representation of the relief brought by the liberation of Czechoslovakia, though Martinů draws inspiration not only from the folk music of his homeland but also English madrigals and the baroque concerto grosso form. An exuberant first movement is full of tricky dance-like cross-rhythms and unconventional textures, handled in this performance with flair and impeccable balance by the RSO, while the themes and more straightforward rhythms of the Scherzo and Trio, not a hundred miles away from Shostakovich, had great character and momentum. The slow movement is when the concerto grosso idea comes into play, with a solo trio lifted from the strings and given its own musical path, which was quite poignant here (this movement is the emotional core of the work). The finale had as much energy as the first movement but interpretively didn’t seem quite so focused – that is, until the breakthrough of new keys, finally ending in C major, when Meister seemed to be putting the ‘progressive’ in progressive tonality. More generally he rarely failed to catch the changeable spirit of the work and made much sense of its stylistic eclecticism and unusual structural features. With exceptional playing across the board, this was a high note on which to end the RSO’s 2011-12 season.