Pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja will shortly be playing at the Beethoven festival in Bonn, the composer’s birthplace, so it was something of a coup for the Machynlleth festival to have secured her for the same programme, namely the last three of his 32 sonatas, the triptych that constitutes a pinnacle of the repertoire. Machynlleth can claim to have been the ancient capital of Wales and, such was the calibre of this particular evening, the town certainly felt like a cultural capital.
Leonskaja’s opening gesture was an indication of her seriousness of purpose, lifting the redundant music desk away from the instrument, placing it on the floor, disdaining the flutter 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 minor mode Prestissimo was almost martial in its fierceness, the perfect foil for the warm serenity of the theme and variations finale, albeit laced with fugal feist.
The Tabernacle – formerly a chapel, yet with a surprising intimacy – has a fine acoustic and, in the A flat major sonata Op 110, Leonskaja again instinctively used it to her advantage, and to Beethoven’s, with a palette of tone-colours from gently muted to vibrant, and a similarly commanding dynamic range. Clarity of delineation and ease in every phrase allowed the structure to unfold organically.
In the final sonata in C minor, Op 111, there were moments which seemed to be the summation of all the earlier C minor masterpieces, forceful yet also achieving a transcendent majesty. Leonskaja’s ability to produce the most powerful sound and allow it to resonate fully suggested an artist fully conscious of the privilege of giving aural expression to what the stone-deaf Beethoven had heard only in his extraordinary imagination.
With barely a minute’s pause between sonatas Leonskaja was like a climber intent on pursuing her summit – this was not a leisurely affair, nor was it absolutely immaculate. That mattered not a jot. Here was innate pianism, with musical sensibilities and a daring honed by a lifetime of experience. She was cheered to the rafters.