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Leonskaja is Very Impressive Here; So is the St. Paul CO
on 2 July 2004
I had recently reviewed the newish release of the two Shostakovich Piano Concertos played by Marc-André Hamelin. Raved about them, in fact. They were coupled with the all-but-unknown Second Piano Concerto by Rodion Shchedrin, which I'd never heard before but fell in love with. I honestly didn't think I'd hear better performances of the Shostakovich pieces anywhere - and that's saying a lot, considering that virtuosi like Bronfman and Dimitry Alexeyev have recorded them in the last few years. Elisabeth Leonskaja is a pianist I'd only vaguely known of before a friend introduced me to her recording of the Brahms First Concerto; I was stunned at the beauty and brains of her playing. It wouldn't be the usual Brahms player who could make the switch to Shostakovich easily. Brahms is weighty and in these two concertos Shostakovich is, for the most part, the class clown. I'm happy to report that Leonskaja makes the transition beautifully. These performances are light-hearted and deeply felt at the same time. If anything, the second movement of the Second Concerto is better than Hamelin's or anyone else's that I've ever heard. When I first heard it I had to play it three times in a row because I was reluctant to leave it, it's THAT gorgeous. In the concerto she is helped immensely by the fine playing of the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra under Hugh Wolff. In that slow movement the muted strings are simply ravishing. Each time I hear the attacca beginning of the last movement, with its silly, gimpy headlong 7/16 insistence, I laugh out loud. The trumpet soloist in the First Concerto is Gary Bordner. His playing is stunning.
Shostakovich's Second Sonata is definitely NOT of a piece with the two concerti. It is a big, introspective, mostly spare essay in Shostakovich's polyphonic style. If you know his Préludes and Fugues, you'll have some idea of the style. Leonskaja plays magisterially here, never afraid to let Shostakovich's spareness tempt her to rush the second and third movements. Very nice, indeed.