The program was called Leonskaja and Mozart but the opening work featured neither! However, the Australian Chamber Orchestra lent fine players to the Sextet from Capriccio by Richard Strauss. There were more like 18 players than the core six as this was an arrangement of the work. It had enough presence and interest to hold the attention of an audience, which was primarily there to hear a legendary pianist in Elisabeth Leonskaja. Strauss’s work had a gentle almost tentative beginning but guest leader Roman Simovic led a strong performance by the violins before the violas and cellos joined them. However the six performers in the core sextet established their balance well before the accompaniment rather overwhelmed them.
It was no surprise to read in the program notes that Strauss intended this work to be a “conversation piece for music (and words)” with the frisson of a possible romantic intrigue. Quite early there can be heard a change of mood and pace to the darkly romantic, an excuse for an almost frenzied attack by Simovic, which allowed the violinist to demonstrate his prowess. Then the music settled to a moody adagio with the cello solo and then viola revealing the importance of the harmonic structure. With all parts in harmony the music nevertheless did not quite settle on the major key for some time. The coda- like section that concluded the piece was not rushed, allowing time for the audience to admire the contribution of the sextet, the wider ensemble – and of course the guest leader himself.
Leonskaja was affectionately greeted when she arrived on stage to be the soloist in Mozart’s piano Concerto number nine “Jeunehomme”. She carried her age and maturity with as much conviction as the ACO’s cultivated air of youthful energy. With it came the reputation of an earlier style of pianism, being the flowing and romantic approach of her mentor Sviatoslav Richter.
The piano entry came early, giving way to a fairly long passage for the ACO to establish the theme. Mozart does not shy away from ornamentation in his music but even so Leonskaja’s approach was respectful as she delivered the composer’s trademark trills, arpeggios and dotted notes. All players blended so well the piano even seemed to become part of the orchestra. However her phrasing showed Leonskaja to have a gentle touch that came from her sympathetic understanding of such details as the octaves in the left-hand. By contrast, the end of the first movement was delivered with a flourish.
The andantino was one of those moody Mozart second movements, with, for example, the brass and winds’ long sustained notes reminding one of the Requiem. In terms of dynamics Leonskaja is perfectly matched with the ACO. A solo passage showed her prowess in this “bridge” to the third movement. This section is well known and one felt the audience settling comfortably because they knew it was in good hands.
Leonskaja allowed herself a little cheek while commenting on the ornaments-rich movement. One hand after the other highlighted the showy cadenza, all played with delicacy and joined by an empathetic ACO, the orchestra’s pizzicato lending a lilt to this section. (There was more of a second movement sound at this point but the music was no less enjoyable for that. And there was a lot of “echoing” of phrases.)
To finish, Leonskaja appeared to invite the ACO to join her in the Rondeau. They did so with alacrity; yet the overall effect was unfussy, accomplished in purely Mozartian style for both soloists and orchestra right to the two final dramatic chords. Bravo! So it was particularly admirable that, for an encore, Leonskaja chose a movement from a Classical sonata, a slow movement suffused with understanding.
The work named as Beethoven’s String Quartet in E flat Major, Opus 127 was, like the Strauss, an arrangement by the ACO’s principal cello Timo-Veikko Valve that quadrupled the number of players. That suited some parts of the music although the contrapuntal style may have been better served with the original work.
Justifying the marking of “maestoso” the first movement began with a series of rich chords, a big sound from which Simovic’s violin emerged in a quasi-soloist role. The Allegro then settled to a well-rounded and full instrumental sound, with the cello for a time assuming the central role.
The Adagio was notable for having no less than four variations on that marking. It was both “singing” and “expressive” as directed, the lower instruments grounding the others. The warmth of the ACO’s performance could be seen as an echo of Leonskaja’s style but was also a technique. Three lower instruments formed a bed for the violins, with a lilting harmony that was almost balletic. The rubato was well handled, especially given the number of instruments, and a rising melody had the effect of soaring.
For the Scherzo Simovic set the pace unfussily so all were on board from the outset. Soon a pattern emerged with the theme: cellos, violas and violins were played with tricky timing against each other. This too was very well managed, especially a rhythmic phrase juxtaposed against much faster playing. And so to the Finale and an emphatic phrase to build on, with the core group keeping good time to a great buildup for the ending. As so often with Beethoven the music appeared to move to an ending, but led instead to a coda, and ultimately, gracious applause.
It should be said, and this is no criticism of the ACO, which always plays superbly, that the overall impression left by this concert was of the soloist Elisabeth Leonskaja’s remarkable empathy with the music and her instrument, which more than fulfilled the expectations of the audience and this reviewer.