Thursday 18 January 2024

From poetic Liszt and Grieg concertos to a little bit of magic from Martha Argerich and friends at Le Piano Symphonique in Lucerne

Grieg: Piano Concerto - Elisabeth Leonskaja, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, Michael Sanderling (Photo: Philipp Schmidli, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester)
Grieg: Piano Concerto - Elisabeth Leonskaja, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, Michael Sanderling (Photo: Philipp Schmidli, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester)

Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1, Grieg: Piano Concerto, Haydn, Mendelssohn; Yoav Levanon, Elisabeth Leonskaja, Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, Michael Sanderling, Martha Argerich, Mischa Maisky, Janine Jansen; Le Piano Symphonique at KKL (Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern)
Reviewed 17 January 2024    

From the poetry of the young Yoav Levanon in Liszt's symphonic concerto and Elisabeth Leonskaya making Grieg her own to sheer magic from just three performers led by Martha Argerich in piano trios by Haydn and Mendelssohn

The Lucerne Symphony Orchestra's Le Piano Symphonique festival has returned to Lucerne for its fourth edition with a week of concerts focused on the piano and all things keyboard. The festival opened at Lucerne's KKL (Kultur- und Kongresszentrum Luzern) with a recital from pianists Michael Pletnev and Martha Argerich (recently named as the festival's Pianiste Associée) on Tuesday 16 January. We caught the second evening of the festival at KKL on 17 January 2024, Michael Sanderling conducted the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra in Liszt's Piano Concerto No. 1 with soloist Yoav Levanon and Grieg's Piano Concerto with soloist Elisabeth Leonskaja. The festival continues its innovative exploration of concert programming, so the second half of the evening then moved to piano trios, with Martha Argerich joined by cellist Mischa Maisky and violinist Janine Jansen for Haydn's Piano Trio in G major, 'Gypsy Rondo' and Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor.

Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 - Yoav Levanon  (Photo: Philipp Schmidli, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester)
Liszt: Piano Concerto No. 1 - Yoav Levanon  (Photo: Philipp Schmidli, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester)

Yoav Levanon was the soloist last year in the festival's performance of the Paderewski Piano Concerto [see my review], and he has returned this year to perform both Liszt concertos as well as the Totentanz and then the performances will be recorded for Warner Classics next week. Levanon is something of a youthful wonder, still only nineteen and looking not unlike the young Liszt (and he is the age Liszt was when the composer started work on his concerto).

The concerto's opening gesture began in uncompromising fashion, but this quickly evaporated as Levanon gave us light figuration full of colour and character. A characteristic of Levanon's performance that quickly became apparent was his love of lingering over detail and conductor Michael Sanderling gave the soloist all the time he needed. This meant that the opening section rather lacked a sense of propulsion and in fact the whole concerto had this feel. The orchestra's performance was unashamedly big-boned in the second section, contrasting with Levanon's poetic freedom whilst he brought a sense of dramatic posturing to the bigger moments. The third section gave us the sense of a Mendelssohn scherzo or perhaps a close analogy would be Berlioz and his sylphs. For all the drama in the final section, Levanon emphasised the work's poetry and made the piano flourishes seem like rhapsodic interruptions more akin to Chopin than Lisztian drama. This was a performance enjoyable as a collection of lovely, often poetic moments, yet the way the piano seemed to halt the music's propulsion rather than being part of it rather deterred me, particularly as Liszt's writing of the work as a single span in multiple sections with cyclical use of motifs means that propulsion is important. Levanon treated us to an encore, Chopin's Revolutionary Etude.

There are, in fact, links between the Liszt and the Grieg concertos as 15 years after the premiere of Liszt's concerto in Leipzig (conducted by Berlioz), Grieg approached Liszt with the score of his concerto, the older master played it at sight (of course) and approved. Here we had the veteran pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja whose recording of the Grieg and Schumann concertos with Sanderling and the orchestra has just been released on Warner Classics.

Leonskaja is not the sort of pianist to be robust for the sake of it and her approach to the concerto's opening rhetoric was very much with a sense of strong poetry, and throughout the movement she generally preferred a Schumannesque approach. She never dwelled too long over incidental beauties, the movement flowed yet had moments of delightful character and some surprising strength. However the second subject was taken at such a slow tempo that the orchestral contribution was in danger of being treacly though Leonskaja made the pianistic aspect work. Overall, her approach to the piano looked very matter of fact yet the results had a wonderfully poetic sound. The slow movement began with a tender and rather slow orchestral introduction which led to piano contributions that can only be described as Chopin-esque yet with little stabs of drama. The third movement was based around a perky Norwegian dance, with a lovely cool flute melody in the middle section. The finale opened in Norwegian mood again, with orchestra and soloist both playful, though in the final torrid moments of the concerto the orchestra seemed in danger of overwhelming the soloist.

Leonskaja also treated us to an encore, a Chopin waltz rendered with a magically expressive simplicity.

Janine Jansen, Martha Argerich, Mischa Maisky (Photo: Philipp Schmidli, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester)
Janine Jansen, Martha Argerich, Mischa Maisky (Photo: Philipp Schmidli, Luzerner Sinfonieorchester)

After the interval, the second half of the evening explored other worlds with trio piano trios from Martha Argerich, Janine Jansen and Mischa Maisky. Haydn's Gypsy Rondo Trio dates from the end of his second London trip, and was dedicated to a talented pianist he met there, Rebecca Schroeter. But Haydn's chamber music of this period was also influenced by the way he encountered professional performances of chamber music at public performances in London rather than simply in aristocratic salons. Yet, for all the work's imagination the shadow of his early works in the genre, effectively accompanied sonatas, also hangs over the work. 

The opening movement gave us Martha Argerich in reticent mode, in fact too much so, and the important piano part rather receded into the background against the stronger strings. Yet there was an elegant simplicity and clarity to the playing that drew you in. The second movement began with Argerich's tender (and reticent) piano before the strings joined in, creating lovely sense of intimacy. The famous rondo was wonderfully perky with fast, tight rhythms and Argerich made the piano delightfully insouciant. Some of the episodes had a really gypsy feel to them and the whole had a great feeling of unpredictability allied to the idea of the performers having fun.

Mendelssohn's Piano Trio No. 1 dates from 1839 (when he was 30) and the composer extensively rewrote the work following a play-through to composer Ferdinand Hiller who encouraged Mendelssohn to modernise the piano writing. The challenge in Mendelssohn's piano trios is that whilst the piano writing his highly elaborate, it is important that the piano does not over dominate. The reticence Martha Argerich showed in the Haydn played dividends in the Mendelssohn. Throughout her performance managed the tricky feat of keeping the figuration in the piano light and well-balanced, without it ever feeling like a stunt.

We began with a tenderly romantic cello solo over rippling piano, before developing into something more and for all the eruptions of drama in the movement there was skittishness too. Throughout the work there was a lovely clarity of detail, and for all the Romanticism there was lightness too. A tender, intimate piano solo opened the second movement, almost a song without words, and then the strings joined in to create lovely transparent textures. The third movement was a skittish delight, beginning with Argerich's scampering piano and the others following, yet for all that, Mendelssohn's fairies felt further away than usual, the performers made this their own. The finale opened in an intimate, mysterious manner before flurries of notes led us into another gypsy-led finale, romantic and skittish.

This was one of those concerts where magic seemed to happen. I loved the sense of energy and clarity that the three performers brought to both works. There was a feeling of fun in the Haydn and the Mendelssohn had that skittish quality which enlivened the Romantic atmosphere, whilst the performers ensured that we never got any sense that this might have once been viewed as a problem work.

We were treated to an encore, and a real treat is was. Schubert's song Du bist die Ruh with Jansen and Maisky taking it in turns to play the solo line.

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