Review: SCO + Elisabeth Leonskaja

First published in the Guardian on 17 November, 2014

Two Brahms symphonies in one concert is common enough; most orchestras can muster the requisite stamina and musical focus. But the two piano concertos? These are mighty, muscular giants of the romantic repertoire, composed a quarter of a century apart and feats of pianistic brawn. Few soloists are made of strong enough stuff to pull off both in one sitting. Elisabeth Leonskaja’s performance with conductor Okko Kamu and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra was not without problems and at times made me wonder whether audience endurance is another argument for keeping the works apart. But the 68-year-old Russian has a fundamental ability to scale the epic with grit and plainspoken poetry. What she lacked in brio she made up for in sturdy grace.

Brahms composed the first concerto when he was 25 having initially imagined it as a symphony. The music is as dark and stormy as anything he wrote and the SCO’S opening tutti was duly huge (I never fail to be surprised at the decibels this chamber orchestra can summon). It was also very slow. The trills seemed to go on for long minutes; the pulse was in danger of flatlining. When Leonskaja finally entered she took yet more space within phrases, signposting every colour change with enormous care. The result was a forensic account, fascinating if you stuck with it.

The second concerto is the gentler of the pair but in Leonskaja’s hands nothing comes without weight. The first two movements were pensive, the Andante stoic, the finale’s spry Tarantella underpinned with nostalgia. Kamu’s conducting was assured and accommodating – he’s a good accompanist. The SCO winds glowed in their long, weaving lines but the strings lacked their usual precision. With no permanent leader, principal second violin or principal cello at the moment, the sound is beginning to slip.