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LEBRECHT LISTENS | Russian Ties Mar Any Appreciation For Leonskaja’s Beethoven Concertos

By Norman Lebrecht on May 12, 2023

Elisabeth Leonskaja (Photo: Marco Borggreve)
Elisabeth Leonskaja (Photo: Marco Borggreve)

Beethoven: Piano concertos 3 & 4 (Warner)


🎧  Spotify |

I cannot, in all conscience, give this recording a star rating, or even a detailed review.

The soloist is Elisabeth Leonskaja, a legendary pianist whose introspections are perhaps the strongest living reminder of her late friend Sviatoslav RIchter. There is an organic element to Leonskaja’s playing, a lack of obvious human agency, that makes Leonskaja at once unpredictable and unarguably at the composer’s service. I have never known her make a recording that was not a unique contribution to the history of the work’s interpretation.

Since 1978, when she left the Soviet Union, Leonskaja has lived quietly in Vienna as an Austrian citizen, confining herself to chamber music with an occasional concerto engagement. To those who know her work, she is the pianist’s pianist par excellence.

However, since Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, she has made the decision to return repeatedly to Russia. Her concerts there are beacons in a wasteland that is boycotted by most western artists. One her last return she was sponsored by Rosneft, the internationally sanctioned state energy company. To perform in Russia at this time is a moral conundrum. To do so when financed by a criminal organisation is a declaration of intent. Wherever one stands on the conflict, Leonskaja has crossed a line, giving endorsement to the Putin regime that it is not shunned by all decent people.

Christian Thielemann, in the recent film Music under the Swastika, claimed that Wilhelm Furtwängler’s complicity in the Third Reich was justified by his legacy of extraordinary recordings. Leonskaya’s presence in Putin’s Russia is not dissimilar. What are we to make of them?

Her performances of Beethoven’s third and fourth concertos are elevated, magical, unfailingly musical. They will be treasured by many listeners for a very long time. But, I am left with feelings of unease just for having listened to her at this moment in history.

The issue is slightly blurred by the performances having been recorded in Toulouse, France, before the war, and conducted by Tugan Sokhiev, a Russian who resigned from the Bolshoi soon after the Ukraine invasion. The performances, per se, have nothing to do with the present situation.

And yet, everything.

I cannot review them.

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