Acclaimed British pianist Leon McCawley opened the Wigmore Hall’s 2013 London Pianoforte Series with a varied programme of piano music by masters of the instrument spanning two centuries, from Bach to Rachmaninov.

Leon McCawley © Clive Barda
Leon McCawley
© Clive Barda

McCawley, who won first prize in the International Beethoven Competition and second prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition at the age of nineteen, seamlessly combines flawless technique and versatility with immaculate presentation and musical integrity, and a calm, self-possessed stage presence, never more evident than in this programme, which contrasted the mannered elegance of Bach with the romanticism of Chopin, the impressionism of Liszt, Debussy and Rachmaninov, and the wit and humour of Beethoven.

A three-movement concerto in the Italian style was familiar territory for Bach: he transcribed sixteen concertos – most of which were violin concertos by Vivaldi – for solo keyboard, to demonstrate his adaptive ingenuity, so there was nothing unusual in him conceiving an original solo concerto in the same style. The Concerto in F was specifically written for a double-manual harpsichord to imitate ensemble playing by creating contrasts through the use of the forte and piano keyboards. McCawley’s account of the lively first movement was sprightly and colourful, with crisp ornaments and clear delineation between the orchestral and solo textures in the music. By contrast the Andante middle movement was intimate and expressive, the limber, highly ornamented melody singing out over a simple chordal accompaniment. The Presto was exuberant and joyful, the pianist clearly relishing the almost continuous motion of this movement.

In Brahms’ Op. 39 Waltzes McCawley brought warmth, colour and tasteful pedaling to these miniatures, which encompass harmonic adventurousness and a range of emotions from humorous to poignant, sentimental to tender.

Chopin wrote six Scherzos, four of which were published as individual works: the first, in B minor, is demonic and reckless, and while the beginning of the C-sharp minor Scherzo is no less dramatic in its angry opening theme of descending double octaves, the second theme is a serene chorale overlaid with gentle falling figures. McCawley’s account was heroic, intense and beautifully nuanced, particularly in the trio.

After the interval, three pieces inspired by bells: Liszt’s “Les Cloches de Genève”, the last piece in the Swiss volume of his Années de Pèlerinage, is dedicated to his daughter by Marie d’Agoult, who was born in Geneva. Here, the bells sound in celebration, framing an tender Cantabile con moto. In Debussy’s “Cloches à travers les feuilles” (“Bells Through the Leaves”), the bells recall the harmonies of Javanese gamelan; while in Rachmaninov’s sombre and mysterious Étude-Tableau in C minor, we hear the tolling of a funeral bell. All three works were presented with pristine articulation and finely shaped dynamic shading.

Closing with Beethoven was a neat nod back to Bach, for Beethoven was undoubtedly inspired by the Goldberg Variations in his Op. 35 “Eroica” Variations, both in the highly decorated Largo of the final variation and in the fugue which precedes it, and the variations heard in the bass as well as the treble. McCawley pulled off the fifteen variations with characteristic understated bravado, nimbly catching the mercurial nature of Beethoven’s writing and his shifting moods from witty to grand, humorous to rhetorical.

Returning to the delicacy of the second theme of the Chopin, McCawley played Schumann’s “Des Abends” from the Fantasiestücke, a lyrical, yearning nocturne, as exquisitely presented as the rest of the programme which preceded it.

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