Leonskaja's piano technique is matched only by her taste

March 11, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

Elisabeth Leonskaja is an intuitive, impulsive and wonderful pianist.

Last night in Shriver Hall in sonatas by Schubert and Schumann and in Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition," the Soviet-born pianist, who now lives in Vienna, demonstrated her many and considerable strengths and -- what some listeners might call -- a few weaknesses.

Part of what makes Leonskaja a remarkable pianist and artist is that she has in abundance the three T's -- technique, tone and taste.

Any pianist who can play the "Witches Hut" in "Pictures" at Leonskaja's tempo is nothing less than a sorceress herself. This was the fastest, most exciting ride on a broomstick this listener has had since he heard Sviatoslav Richter play the piece more than 20 years ago.

Then there is the matter of tone. In two Chopin nocturnes -- the E-flat from Opus 9 and the F-sharp Major from Opus 15 -- Leonskaja coaxed sounds from the instrument that suggested the rise and fall of a human voice.

As for taste -- and to these ears that also means musical intelligence -- there can't be any greater tribute than to note that this pianist made musical sense of so crazy and almost incoherent a work as Schumann's F-sharp Minor Sonata. The case for this gigantic piece's alternating moments of dreamy introspection and of gunpowder outbursts has rarely been made so persuasively.

But the most intriguing thing about Leonskaja's playing was its emotionality. Schubert's A Major Sonata (D.664) is all too easy to make charming; Leonskaja made it something more. In the first movement, musical strands subsided into each other with ineffable loveliness; the second movement was almost unbearably poignant; the third movement -- despite a memory lapse that forced the pianist to go back to the beginning of the exposition -- had the kind of dance-like joy that a listener never wants to end.

If the memory slip in the Schubert suggested that Leonskaja does not play like a machine, her performance of the Mussorgsky confirmed it.

It was, to put the matter simply, a wild performance. Most good pianists play a piece somewhat differently from concert to concert. Like Martha Argerich, however, one senses that Leonskaja is something rarer -- the kind of pianist who feels a piece differently from moment to moment and who plays as if she were making up the music on the spot. This made for moments that were absolutely terrific (such as the shattering transition between "Limoges" and "Catacombs") and some that were not (such as an overly loud "Ballet of the Chicks" and a somewhat rhythmically unstable "Great Gate").

One thing that Leonskaja never was, however, was boring. This listener can't wait to hear her again.

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