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How to catch an audience

Leon McCawley – 15 Feb 2023
Review by Julia Meredith

Until I heard Leon McCawley play, I’d never have considered so dry a virtue as ‘Respect’ to feature in my reasons for my being so utterly captured by a musician’s performance. But mulling it over with fellow audience members, it became clear that this was the overriding quality that linked his extraordinarily varied but always enthralling approach to such diverse composers as Haydn at his most cheerful, and Brahms getting extremely agitato.

Perhaps a bit of background: first of the Fanny Davies International Piano Series for 2023, Leon McCawley won first prize in the 1993 International Beethoven Piano Competition and came second in the Leeds International Piano competition in the same year. He was only nineteen. (I can’t recommend strongly enough that you find it on YouTube; it makes the small hairs rise, and it doesn’t hurt that he looks like a matinee idol from the Thirties!) His credentials and interpretation together demonstrate a unique talent. But respect?

I believe it is in the way he honours the deepest truths in every composer he undertakes to play, and manages to communicate that to an audience so that they in that instant, can understand and share his reverence.

My first impression, as he launched into Haydn’s Sonata no. 38 in F, was of a very precise, well-mannered performer with impeccable technique. But as Haydn’s warmth permeated through he visibly expanded into a state of quiet bliss. Every raised eyebrow is an unconscious response to the delicious surprises Haydn keeps delivering, but the airy accuracy of his fingerwork tells of his absolute commitment to the fact, as well as the feeling of the work.

In the Chopin Nocturnes, Op. 55, McCawley’s empathetic ability to become both medium and message comes to full expression. Under his hands every phrase is so telling – an exact description in an important conversation, which he conveys (or so it seems!) by a process of self-hypnosis. The effect on the audience was certainly mesmerising; it was almost painful to return from the dream of luminescence into which he led us. The only way I can put it is that once heard, you can’t conceive of its being performed another way.

Beethoven wrote his Sonata 81a, Les Adieux, ‘on the departure of his Imperial Highness, Archduke Rudolph’ . However what McCawley does with the three movements, Farewell, Absence and Reunion, carries so much more than just a declaration of Beethoven’s civic admiration for his patron. He negotiates Beethoven’s mercurial changes of mood with an rapport that makes the emotion consistent and credible, and reveals to us the sweet spot of genius that drove such impatient volatility.

The effect of ‘Absence’ infuses us from its leaden quality of the opening: time hanging heavy on the heart of the left-behind. Gentle melancholy descends into gloom, punctuated by episodes of happy recollection. This sweet sad reverie is transformed as sun breaks through cloud, into rippling jubilation as the music segues into ‘Reunion’, a joyous paean of confidence and optimism that even as it closes with a more measured appreciation of the lover’s return, surprises us with a final irrepressible burst of glee. It is quite irresistible, and feels very contemporary. This is a pianist who finds the humanity in the music, and embodies it.

That ability to take on the character of the piece seemed to suggest an almost uncanny form of musical possession. Within seconds of greeting us affably post-interval, he had submerged himself into the passionate suffering of Brahms, and our tranquility was disturbed; the music demanded it. From this drama, he then conjured such sweetness from the keys, I know I wasn’t alone in melting inside… Of course we’re hearing Brahms’ genius, but what McCawley draws forth is so much more than technical perfection. And he clearly feels it: the unselfconscious look of beautific tenderness could not be feigned.

In the Molto passionato that followed, again we saw how every note is made to carry meaning, and wrings us as it does him, as though at the suffering of a beloved friend. His ability to command our respect for this laying-bare of the composer’s innermost anguish was awe-inspiring. Not a soul raised a hand to clap for what felt like breathless minutes after the final note hung in the air. When the applause finally came, it had the fury of pent-up release.

Schumann one gathers, is one of McCawley’s great loves, and there was no doubting this in his Faschingsschwank aux Wien, Op. 26. It can be translated as ‘ Carnival Jest from Vienna’, and certainly the Allegro had a theatrical, celebratory character, with resonances of Beethoven’s earlier ‘Reunion’. In the triumphal flying start it carried a knowing quality of conscious dramatics – but imperceptibly, the performer is absorbed into the performance as it grips and dominates till by the end, my overriding impression was of the musician played by the music. So it felt thereafter: The Romanze, inspired by Schumann’s wife Clara, was subsumed in introspection, the pace faltering at the depth of feelings. The Scherzo, a boisterous joke, the Intermezzo brought us the performative emotion of the accompaniment to a silent movie. Finally, the Finale: the boundless energy of a man in love, unable to keep still for his sense of a great hope achieved and the sunny uplands awaiting. But within that, the most delicate pacing prevailed. Phrases slowed suggesting suppressed yearning, pleasurable dawdling… all built into a letter from the heart, handwritten, hand delivered, the time for concealment over.

He was greeted with deafening applause and a standing ovation, reflecting, I believe, his intuitive connection with afficionados and first-timers alike.

The Mendelssohn Song without words which followed was a murmur of soothing calm after the highly-wrought masque that preceded it; a thoughtful return to earth after being catapulted into a firework-filled soundscape. Having led us into fierce and wonderful terrain, the master guided us safely back home. We were drained; he looked ready to do it all over again. It felt unrepeatable… it was certainly unforgettable.

Warmest thanks to Tom Hicks who helped to persuade Leon McCawley to perform here, and to Guernsey Arts and The Swallow 2018 Charitable Trust, without whose support this exceptional recital would not have taken place.

Julia Meredith 17th February 2023


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