Elisabeth Leonskaja, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Pianists who sell out the Queen Elizabeth Hall must either be household names like Kissin or Brendel, or else they must have a very effective publicity machine. Elisabeth Leonskaja - a sexagenarian Russian, currently living in Vienna and virtually unknown in Britain - ticks neither of these boxes, so how was it that for her recital there was a full house? My neighbour, it turned out, had come all the way from Vienna, but nothing else linked the massed ranks around me, beyond the obvious fact that they were connoisseurs who had clocked her performances on disc.

And they may have known something of her story, which began in that musical Mecca, Tbilisi, and continued in Moscow, where she was taught by a pupil of a pupil of Liszt, before being taken under the wing of the august Sviatoslav Richter.

Her exit to Vienna was made under the impulse of anti-Semitism: like other top Jewish musicians in the Sixties and Seventies, she found mysterious obstacles placed in her way when she tried to get dates outside Russia. With Israel and Austria competing to offer her citizenship, she opted for the latter.

The large figure in severe black garb who marched on stage attacked the piano almost before she'd sat down: the entry to Liszt's Petrarch Sonnet 104 was as explosive as I've heard it, and the dreamy lyricism which follows had a steely firmness of tone. In this piece full of ruminative stops and starts, every note in every embellishing cascade was given due weight; like its performer, the music seemed somehow larger than life.

Then came Tchaikovsky's Grand Sonata, a work usually disparaged as "unpianistic" and unworthy of its creator. The opening octaves roared like a clamour of big bells, with the "risoluto" direction taken to an extreme.

Leonskaja played with such hurtling force that the first movement's harmonic shifts left us stunned; the plaintive cadences of the "Andante", followed by muscular Nutcracker-ish dances, evoked quintessentially Russian scenes. It made one realise that in this music the piano is a means, not an end: it's immensely demanding technically, but doesn't flatter the pianist, and that's why it's acquired a bad name.

After the interval, we got Chopin - all Four Scherzi, with a "Nocturne" interposed in the middle. The opening chord struck like lightning, as it should, but I was astonished how little she used the pedal: at those points where most pianists bathe in it, she hardly pedalled at all, and the result was a bracingly clean sound. Sometimes we missed the expected poetry - the scatters of stardust in the third scherzo seemed merely efficiently negotiated - but the whole effect was martial and magnificent.

She gave two encores - a Debussy prelude which was dazzling, then the languid "La plus que lente", before leaving us with a sudden, broad smile.