Elisabeth Leonskaya, Wigmore Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

There is something leonine about Elisabeth Leonskaya as she sits down to play, and the arpeggiated first chord of Schubert’s F minor Impromptu heralds the most massive statement I've ever heard of its opening theme.

Nothing could be further from the sound Schubert would have made on his wooden-framed piano, but this Steinway opulence could be what he heard in his dreams. The rippling semiquaver passages which follow have unusual sumptuousness, after which this heroic work unfolds in all its complex and episodic beauty.

What we are listening to is not just a recital, it’s also a reflection of the golden age of pianism. Born in Odessa 65 years ago and raised in Tbilisi, Leonskaya was tutored at the Moscow Conservatory by Jacob Milstein, who had been a pupil of Liszt. Meanwhile the chamber partner who formed her mature style was the great Sviatoslav Richter, teaching her to prepare by playing very slowly, and thinking very deeply as she did so: no wonder her touch is so compelling and authoritative. As a Soviet Jew, she was routinely prevented from touring to the West: Israel offered her citizenship, but she opted instead for Austrian citizenship which was offered at the same time. She now enjoys guru status, with students fighting to join her master-classes.

The piece de resistance of this Schubert recital is the Sonata in D D850. This is another late work which makes huge demands on the player’s ability to delineate architecture, with each movement putting its theme through variations in remote keys. Leonskaya gives the first movement a hurtling energy, but also warmth and tenderness: composed on holiday in a spa town in the Austrian Alps, the music feels impelled by the force of nature, with hunting-horn effects permeating throughout. After the exploratory Scherzo, the concluding Rondo comes like a liberation, with softly rolling bass effects set against skittering soprano riffs. Giving two more Schubert Impromptus as encores - one singing gravely, the other in weightless flight - Leonskaya brings the house down. Next Monday (May 10) Radio 3 will broadcast this concert. I wonder how they will deal with the twangs caused by repeated malfunctioning of the piano’s damper mechanism. Leonskaya merely raised an eyebrow each time, but they can’t have helped her concentration.