Russian pianist hits just the right notes with Schubert

March 08, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

When Elizabeth Leonskaja decided to emigrate from her native Moscow, she considered only one city.

"It had to be Vienna," the pianist says. "I played there three times in the late '70s and I loved it. And, of course, it was the city of Schubert."

Leonskaja is scarcely a household word, but fanciers of Russian piano playing have been talking about her since the 1960s when she scored victories in several important international competitions. What fascinated the aficionados was not just her Liszt, her Rachmaninov or her Chopin -- the usual staples of competition winners -- but her profoundly beautiful, tonally beguiling and emotionally tempestuous performances of Schubert.

"Everything she played, but particularly her Schubert, made me think she was the greatest talent I had ever heard," says the well-known American pianist Malcolm Frager, who was a juror at the 1968 Brussels Competition in which Leonskaja participated. "Nothing I've heard from anyone else in all the years since has caused me to change my mind."

The Teldec label -- which has accorded Leonskaja star treatment, allowing her to record anything she wants -- seems to agree with Frager's assessment. Baltimoreans can judge for themselves Sunday evening in Shriver Hall when Leonskaja begins a recital with Schubert's Sonata in A Major (D.664) and follows it with Schumann's F-sharp Minor Sonata and Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."

For a few years after she left Russia in 1979, Leonskaja's career was confined to Central Europe, but several influential conductors -- including Carlo Maria Giulini, Kurt Masur and Kurt Sanderling -- brought her to the attention of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with whom she made a spectacular debut in 1983. She made an equally impressive debut with the New York Philharmonic two years ago when -- as a last minute replacement for Claudio Arrau -- she played concertos by Beethoven and Liszt.

One expected that the Beethoven G Major Concerto would be wonderful, but the real surprise was the Liszt A Major. It was the sort of performance -- thunderous, impulsive, poetic and mysterious -- that Leonskaja's mentor, Sviatoslav Richter, used to give in his prime.

"I have never understood why Liszt has not had a better reputation in the West," Leonskaja says. "In Russia we feel very good about this music."

Subsequent recordings for Teldec of such forearm-burning pieces as Liszt's B Minor Sonata and Brahms' transcendentally difficult "Paganini Variations" -- works usually not associated with women pianists -- have only made even more obvious what was apparent at the New York Philharmonic concerts: This shy, modest woman who plays Schubert so sensitively is also a great bravura player.

"In Russia -- except for Schubert -- it was always the big pieces I did," Leonskaja says. "Women always want to do what [men] say they can't."

Elizabeth Leonskaja

Where: Shriver Hall. Johns Hopkins University.

When: March 10, 7:30 p.m.

Tickets: $16 for adults, $6 for students.

Call: 338-7164.

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