Pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja will soon play at the Beethoven festival in Bonn, the composer’s native town, so it is a stroke of brilliance for the Machynlleth festival to have selected her for the same program, namely the last three of her 32 sonatas, the triptych which constitutes a pinnacle of the repertoire. Machynlleth can lay claim to having been the ancient capital of Wales and, such was the caliber of this particular evening, the town certainly felt like a cultural capital.
Leonskaja’s opening gesture was an indication of the seriousness of his intention, lifting the redundant music stand away from the instrument, placing it on the floor, disdaining the beat of amused applause and, without further ado, launching into the E major sonata Op 109, immediately capturing its idiosyncratic balance between light pastoral flow and slow declamatory passion. The Prestissimo minor mode was almost martial in its ferocity, the perfect foil for the warm serenity of the theme and final variations, though interwoven with fugal feist.
The Tabernacle – once a chapel, but surprisingly intimate – has beautiful acoustics and, in the Sonata in A flat major Op 110, Leonskaja instinctively used it again to his advantage, and that of Beethoven, with a a palette of tones ranging from soft muted to vibrant, and an equally imposing dynamic range. The clarity of delineation and ease of each sentence allowed the structure to flow organically.
In the last sonata in C minor, opus 111, there were moments that seemed to be the sum of all the previous C minor masterpieces, energetic but also reaching a transcendent majesty. Leonskaja’s ability to produce the most powerful sound and allow it to resonate fully suggested an artist fully aware of the privilege of giving sonic expression to what the stone-deaf Beethoven had only heard in his extraordinary imagination.
With barely a minute’s pause between sonatas, Leonskaja was like a mountain climber determined to pursue her summit – it was not a quiet affair, nor absolutely immaculate. It didn’t matter. Here, it was an innate pianism, with musical sensibilities and audacity honed by a lifetime of experience. She was acclaimed to the rafters.