Wigmore Mondays: Leon McCawley plays Haydn, Chopin, Beethoven & Hans Gál

Leon McCawley (piano, above – photo credit Clive Barta)

Haydn Piano Sonata in C minor, HXVI:20 (1771) (1:41 on the broadcast link – 18:08)

Hans Gál Three Preludes, Op 65 (1944) (19:34 – 28:12)

Chopin 2 Nocturnes, Op 37 (1838-9) (29:32-42:07)

Beethoven 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO 80 (1806) (44:07 – 53:49)

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 5 March 2018

You can listen to the BBC Radio 3 broadcast by clicking here

Written by Ben Hogwood

Leon McCawley is an enterprising pianist who looks to play both the familiar and the unfamiliar, as his intriguing discography for the Somm and Avie labels shows. This concert, carefully planned, distilled this approach into an engrossing hour’s music of darkness and light.

The darkness was present in the works of the program inhabiting minor keys, especially those by Haydn, the first by Chopin, and the towering Variations of Beethoven.

Haydn first (from 1:41 on the broadcast) – one of his many Sonatas for piano that helped revolutionise the instrument’s reach and capacity. This particular example had a first movement (from 1:41, marked Moderato) that was surprisingly reserved and doleful for its composer, as though he had something on his mind.

McCawley moved into an equally serious Andante con moto (from 8:53), but as this settled a more lyrical approach took hold, rather like an aria. Brightening as the movement progressed, its elegance was countered by the finale (marked Allegro, from 13:46), which was detached in its delivery from McCawley, becoming more worked up as the themes were developed before a darker end at 18:08.

The Hans Gál pieces were undoubtedly the curiosity of the program. Gál’s renaissance of recent years has unearthed some very interesting music. A Jewish composer, he had to flee the Nazi regiment in the 1930s for the UK. Tragedy took hold there also, in the form of his elder sister and one of his sons taking their own lives, before the family were able to settle more in Edinburgh, where he worked for Donald Tovey at the university.

Due to the prominence of tonal writing in his music, and the unfashionable stance of this approach at the time, his music was more or less forgotten – until recently, where the conductor Kenneth Woods has revived the four symphonies, Matthew Sharp the music for cello and McCawley the piano music.

This was essentially a taster of freeform pieces, the Three Preludes beginning with something of a whirlwind at 19:34. They descended into a mid-range cluster of notes before the busy-ness returned. The second prelude (22:13) had more private thoughts, and was more romantic, while the third (26:10) was playful and elusive.

McCawley then moved on to thoughtful Chopin, the first of the 2 Nocturnes Op.37 (29:32) darkly shaded and very sombre. It was a nice touch moving from G minor to G major (36:30) for a more carefree, triple time piece, subtly charming.

These served as the ideal lead-up to some tempestuous Beethoven. When the composer is operating in the key of C minor you can usually expect fireworks – the Symphony no.5, the Pathétique piano sonata and the Piano Concerto no.3 are just three examples of the brimstone we hear in this key. The 32 Variations (from 44:07) are close in date to the Fifth, and have similar qualities – though here Beethoven takes a small chord progression cell and works his magic with it.

From the start McCawley powered through some impressive pianistic feats, using a really strong sense of phrasing to give the music space when needed. From 47:01 the music effectively moved into a slow ‘movement’ in C major, but it soon returned with extra vigour to the home key.

This was a brilliant performance, capped by an inspired encore of the same composer’s Bagatelle in C major Op.33/2 (54:47) – McCawley careful to choose an appropriate key. This was enjoyably mischievous, Beethoven playing around with both pianist and listener.

Further listening

You can listen to the music played in this concert on the Spotify playlist below – which includes McCawley’s own recordings of the Haydn and Gál:

McCawley is the only pianist to date who has recorded the complete piano works of Hans Gál, and the album is also on Spotify:

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