Pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja celebrates her 70th birthday performing Franz Schubert
Pianist Elisabeth Leonskaja doesn’t take time for pleasantries on stage. She sits and begins to play nearly before the clapping stops, her mien serious if not downright stern. But within moments, her sweeping and sovereign lyricism has the hall in her grip.
Born in Tbilisi and trained in Moscow, Leonskaja came to Vienna in 1978. The Soviet government had suddenly placed a five-year ban on her foreign travel, although she had already played several international concert tours. The only recourse was emigration, in her case – she thought – to Israel.
At the time, there were no diplomatic relations between the USSR and Israel. “You had to go via Vienna,” explained Leonskaja in a 2013 interview. “I got my exit visa eight days before a concert I was supposed to play with the Vienna Symphony. I arrived the day of the rehearsal. Because the procedures took so long at the airport, I left my luggage there and went directly to the hall with my concert gown and shoes. That’s how my life in Vienna began.”
She never got to Israel; Vienna had won her over. Thus, to commemorate her 70th birthday last November, Leonskaja chose to perform the most Viennese of all the classical masters – Franz Schubert – with a six-concert series at the Konzerthaus of the Schubert sonatas, and the release of a gala recording set of the late ones.
Unlike most composers associated with Vienna, Schubert was a true native: Born in the 9th district in 1797, he died 31 years later in the 4th. Both sites are now museums. At his birth house you can see the Schubert family’s one room and the tiny, smoky kitchen where 14 children were born and 9 died. At the museum in the 4th, there is a heartrending collection of doctor’s bills. But in a world without antibiotics, syphilis was fatal, if the mercury treatments didn’t kill you first.
Schubert managed to condense a huge artistic output into his tragically short adulthood. His last year witnessed an explosion of creativity, works with a splendor betraying no sign of his seriously failing health or the misery this must have caused him. On June 14, Leonskaja will aptly conclude her series with the last piano sonata – in B flat, No. 960 in the Deutsch chronological catalog – completed by Schubert on September 26, 1828, just eight weeks before his death.
The sonata opens with a theme of deep calmness and ephemeral beauty, only occasionally interrupted by hushed, low trills portending other, more sinister realms. Modulations from major to minor modes are rapid, mimicking the rocking of inner thoughts and voices. Indeed, Schubert’s music has a remarkable subtlety, portraying the slightest shifts of emotions. The sonata’s slow movement is a long sequence of harmonic magic hovering at the edge of desolation. But the exuberant final movement, muscular and resilient, sends us homeward joyous.
There are discerning listeners who believe Leonskaja is still not at her zenith. In 50 years on stage, she has continued to become stronger: technically, musically and emotionally. She ascribes this to unceasing work on certain repertoire, like Schubert’s sonatas.
“There are things in Schubert that any average Viennese understands better than I do. He expresses profundity with lightness. I have to think a great deal,” she says.
“It is a most difficult thing to absorb another culture. I am at home in Vienna, I love Vienna,” she says. “But I am not Viennese.” The Viennese audience would beg to differ. While not a native, she has been adopted and is dearly loved. When giving her final bow before leaving the stage, she suddenly smiles broadly. Undeniably, Leonskaja is at home.
Konzerthaus, Großer Saal, June 14, 19:30
Sonata in f minor D 625 (1818)
Fantasie in C-major D 760 «Wanderer-Fantasie» (1822)
Sonata in B-major D 960 (1828)