Viennese Winds Blow Through Elisabeth Leonskaja’s Mozart Sonatas

Elisabeth Leonskaja

In the past few weeks, I’ve been listening to Elisabeth Leonskaja’s Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas,. I have now worked my way through six discs, eighteen sonatas and one fantasia.

I love Mozart’s sonatas and especially his fantasia, but it must be said that one or two early sonatas come across as a little frothy. That said, this is a magnificent collection and eminent pianist, Leonskaja, is just the artist to take on the challenge of interpreting even the lightest of  Mozart moments.

Other great pianists have accomplished this in different ways – Alfred Brendel, Mitsuko Uchida and Francesco Piemontesi spring to mind. Brendel is memorable for his beautiful melancholic take on the sonatas, meanwhile Mitsuko Uchida, with her feather-like touch, expresses Mozartian joy, and Francesco Piemontesi (an ex-pupil of Brendel) displays remarkable precision and vision. These are impressionistic observations of course, each artist has many facets to their play.

I was wondering what the great Georgian-born Leonskaja would bring to the pianistic pot.

In the box set notes, pianist Shani Diluka tells us that Leonskaja, when preparing her Mozart sonatas, loved to walk in the woods outside her Viennese home where she now lives. In the Wienewald or somewhere similar we learn that Leonskaja listened to the wind blowing across the mountains or through the trees and from the clear breezes I imagine she divined a way to play those beautiful crystalline passages in Mozart’s sonatas. 

When Leonskaja plays Mozart, she remains faithful to the text. I know this because I followed along with the music on my lap. I was intrigued by her articulation at times, but it always made sense. The robustness of the left-hand chords in the Sonata in C K279, Disc 1, took me aback, but it was this very robustness which brought out the melody, bars later. 

In the Sonata in F K280 on the same disc, the adagio was played sweeter and lighter than I  expected, but Leonskaja softened her touch in the repeat run of the same passage. Listening to her was a masterclass in nuance. 

Mozart composed sixteen of his sonatas in a major key – but within each score there are many exquisite shifts of tone, from major to minor, and back again. Even though these shifts were well known to me, Leonskaja managed to play them as they were composed yesterday, without any artifice, as if she was discovering them anew.

There are so many musical moments to cherish – the dramatic opening of the A minor Sonata K310 for instance on Disc 3. The allegro maestose which follows is Beethoven-like in intensity and grandeur. The andante cantabile with the sustained trills in the right hand and the chords in the left, difficult and lovely. The presto made me think of Schubert!

As the listener progresses through the discs – the mature sonatas started to display more complex structures. 

With the Fantasia in C Minor, Leonskaja really was at her best and masterfully expressed the tension of an unfolding drama, holding back and maintaining a restless dynamic. The Fantasia was without a doubt one of the highlights of the album. But I leave you to discover your favourites. 

Leonskaja’s complete Mozart Sonatas will appeal not only to Leonskaja fans, but, I’m hoping, to those who are less familiar with her work. Although Leonskaja is much awarded and lauded, and a regular on international stages, she remains modest and humble. It is the music which counts, and her complete love of her craft shines through.

KH

 Box set of Elisabeth Leonskaja Mozart Complete Piano Sonatas out on Warner Classics now.

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