Music: Classical Review: A walk but not a run

Leon McCawley Wigmore Hall
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Leon McCawley

Wigmore Hall

is best known for winning second prize in the Leeds Piano Competition in 1993. Since then, his career has progressed rather well, with an interesting variety of engagements and, on Wednesday, in the Wigmore Hall's "Young Masters" series, he chose a programme that mixed familiar with more unusual music. Not that filling the second half of the evening with Rachmaninov's second set of Preludes, Op 32, is particularly enterprising in an artistic sense, however technically challenging. Perhaps punters like to feel they're getting something complete, but it makes more sense on a CD from which you can pick and choose - Rachmaninov didn't intend them to be heard as a cycle, and trawling through the lot in a recital reduces the memorability and impact of individual pieces. Surprisingly, McCawley played a Bosendorfer, which he must have brought in specially, since the Wigmore no longer has its own. The hall has a very vivid, sonorous acoustic, so playing a piano less powerful than a Steinway is a good idea - at least, in certain music. But you expect a richness and depth of colour in Rachmaninov that wasn't there - above all in the glowing benediction of the massive chords in the final Prelude. What matters, you might argue, is that a pianist should play an instrument he feels comfortable with, and McCawley certainly sounded natural and at ease, to the extent that his facility, in the best sense, could be taken for granted. There was no rubato of convenience. But neither was there the panache, the sense of pulling rabbits out of a hat, which this highly glamorous music warrants.

He was more truly in his element with Beethoven's first set of seven Bagatelles, Op 33 - immediately responsive to the easy-going humour of the first and the hiccups of the second. He lit the repeating rocket- like theme of the fifth in a flash, and defined the dynamic gradations of the last Bagatelle to a nicety.

With the other work McCamley chose before the interval, he was hardly out to charm. The overall effect of Prokofiev's Fourth Sonata, compiled, if that's the right word, "from old notebooks" in 1917, is distinctly dour. Prokofiev's marking on the sultry first movement, Allegro molto sostenuto, may be as open to dispute as a similar marking of Schubert's, Allegro molto moderato, but I'd say that McCawley favoured the sostenuto. And what does Andante assai mean at the top of the middle movement? A piano teacher might translate it as "very walking-pace". Which is perhaps why it seemed rather boring. The real Prokofiev stood up and went for it in the brisk, sardonically brilliant finale, ending with the hands pummelling both extremes of the keyboard at the same time, so that a pianist needs two pairs of eyes to be sure of accuracy. The audience gave McCawley the benefit of the doubt and cheered.

plays Beethoven, Barber & Schumann at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, SBC, London SE1, 3.30pm Sun 10 May