by Rachel Beaumont

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Brittle brilliance: Leon McCawley plays Beethoven at the Wigmore

The last Beethoven sonatas
Leon McCawley
Wigmore Hall
Stalls V14, £25
12 February 2019
Wigmore page

Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 30 in E Op. 109; Piano Sonata No. 31 in A flat Op. 110; Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor Op. 111
Encore: Schumann: Arabesque

Of course, it is a treat to hear these magnificent pieces performed in the bell-like intimacy of the Wigmore Hall by a pianist who is worth his salt, and Leon McCawley is certainly that. The last sonatas feel as a single breath, and also a telescoping of Beethoven’s writing, from the overt classicism of the first to the last which seems almost to rage against its seams. I wonder what it feels like to learn these pieces and to decide how you would play them.

So I enjoyed the concert. And yet, I had some quibbles. There was a brittleness to the first two sonatas, like they were made of stitched-together bones, or disembodied teeth that clicked against each other. I thought it might be the Wigmore Steinway, and that, somewhat ridiculously, I simply yearned for the softer pliancy of a fortepiano – which, of course, could have nothing of the dynamic range that was essential to McCawley’s performance of no.31 in particular.

But when McCawley came to no.32 he was able to yield that graceful organic fluency that was lacking before the interval. I still think the Steinway was not at its best, producing a slight rattling buzz on a handful of keys; but that arthritic clacking of the first two must have been intentional. I’ve been trying to think why you would do that and can’t make it out. To set the last one apart? To emphasize the changing personality over the three? Everything I come up with feels very dubious. Perhaps McCawley just took some time finding his mojo; or perhaps he just likes the last one best.

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