Complete Piano Sonatas
Elisabeth Leonskaja (piano)
Warner Classics 9029645782 385:33 mins (6 discs)
How many people know all 18 of Mozart’s piano sonatas? I certainly didn’t, and to follow them carefully in the enlightened company of Elisabeth Leonskaja, surely the wisest of all living pianists, was an honour and a pleasure.
Why has she waited until her mid-seventies to make the odyssey? Part of the answer must lie in what she told me when I interviewed her at the Verbier Festival, where she was playing all of Schubert’s sonatas for the first time and we were speaking of ideal tempos, ideal space. ‘In Mozart, actually, it’s really impossible to reach that point. With Schubert, you sometimes have the feeling that you’re there, but with Mozart, never.’ That echoes what her great mentor and friend Sviatoslav Richter wrote in his journal: ‘What is it about Mozart? Is there a pianist in the world who really manages to play him well?’
This set surely gives an affirmative answer. As we move from the relatively simple charms of an exceptional composer in his late teens (the set of six, K279-84) through experimentation and greatness to the last sonata, necessarily simple to suit a young princess but so perfect and at one with the world, the lucidity, articulation and colouring are always a joy, and have a perfect recording to match. You register the delight Mozart shows in ringing decorative changes on rococo tropes, the ambition of placing an adagio first, for the E flat Sonata K282, where Leonskaja reaches for the pure tender essence, and of ending the set with a Theme and Variations (the seemingly effortlessness continuity, one variation flowing into another, is breathtaking). Not so very much later, chronologically speaking, Mozart’s powerhouse of ideas in the opening movement of K309 has irresistible forward movement but never anything overdriven; Leonskaja always treads the tightrope between prettiness and excessive emphases.
It’s not necessarily true that simply using a minor key reflects pathos, or even – as Cliff Eisen suggests in very well-written notes which don’t always hit on what I found most significant as I listened – roots in a personal loss. If anything Leonskaja goes deeper in minor episodes as part of a bigger context. But there’s no doubt of the profundity or the abyss that opens up beneath graceful ideas when we reach the C minor Sonata K457 of 1784 and the even more remarkable Fantasia in the same key of the following year. As one of those rare pianists who can run the gamut from the most gracious, witty charm to orchestral sonorities, particularly in the left-hand writing at which Mozart became so daring even before this, Leonskaja puts these works at the deep centre of the series.
For me, the real surprise was the quirkiness of K533 in F major, palpable late Mozartian complexity of light and shade, and if its three successors are simpler, our pianist makes sure they effortlessly shine. Perfection? For me, it’s a yes. Can we have the Haydn and even the Beethoven sonatas complete from Leonskaja in good time, please?