Leonskaja plays Chopin

Elisabeth Leonskaja
Frederic Chopin: Piano Works
Fantaisie Impromptu, Scherzi, Nocturnes
MDG 943 1558-6

Review for International Piano

Although she recorded the Piano Concertos and Nocturnes for Teldec back in the 1990s, it is probably Chopin’s four Scherzi that best suit the tempered, aristocratic playing style of Elisabeth Leonskaja. These formally bold and expressively demanding works now form the centre of new Chopin recital disc from Dabringhaus and Grimm (MDG), in which the Fantaisie-Impromptu and a selection of Nocturnes provide a thoughtful frame and accompaniment to the Scherzi.

As ever with Leonskaja, a first listening might lead one to suspect the playing to be somewhat lacking in emotional fire. In the great B minor Scherzo, for example, with its fiery opening and great passionate arcs, one typically listens for totally committed, explosive playing. In Leonskaja’s case, however, that the explosions are carefully contained pays, on second listening, strong dividends both in terms of the overall sense of balance and in the poise of the contemplative middle section. And it is the same in the other three. The on-tenterhooks opening of the C-sharp szherzo carries through all the way to the work’s exuberant conclusion, which often sounds overblown in less thoughtful hands, while the poised, unassuming posture which frames the various adventures pursued in the E major scherzo possess a glow that illuminates, in particular, the wonderful lyrical, Nocturne-like middle section.

The Nocturnes are carefully chosen and, as with the Scherzi, ordered thoughtfully according to Leonskaja’s taste rather than chronologically. The passage from the C-sharp minor scherzo into the mournful, ponderous world of the C minor nocturne works exceptionally well, drawing an unusual sense of urgency from this often somewhat overlooked piece. The recital closes with the D-flat major nocturne Op. 27 No. 2. Always magical, when played well, and shot through with a finely-balanced and somewhat disengaged nostalgia, Leonskaja’s interpretation makes a fittingly un-showy finale to the programme, allowing us to look – or rather listen – back over the succession of moments of breath-taking virtuosity, carefully measured lyricism, and rarefied peace as one might contemplate ripples reaching a lake sure, distant in both space and time from their original cause.

Released as a Hybrid SACD/CD disc, the production quality is, as usual with MDG, faultless. The use of a warm-toned 1901 Steinway adds further refinement to this thoughtful and welcome disc.

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