When the theme of war comes up, one does not generally think of women, as it is always portrayed as a rather masculine affair. Similarly with pianists: more often than not soloists for piano concertos are male, whether you like it or not. In fact, if one scrolls down through Beethoven’s Spotify profile, it’s a good few discs before you find a female soloist on any instrument, let alone the piano, and even then it’s pretty sparse pickings.
The need to say this comes from the reality for myself that in six years of regularly going to classical concerts, the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Piano Concerto Op.73, the ‘Emperor’ (1809-10), with Russian-Austrian soloist Elisabeth Leonskaja was the first woman I had ever seen playing the piano. Perhaps this is mere bad luck on my part for choice of concerts, but it was a surprising thing to consider.
Such a novel prospect was met by some formidable playing as Leonskaja overwhelmed a considerable crowd in Younger Hall with her boisterous energy and animated presence on the instrument. Amid the ducking and weaving over the keys, at no point did the treacherous runs of the solo line, particularly in the first and final movement of Beethoven’s best-known concerto, get the better of the veteran, who is justifiably renowned for her playing the composer’s works for keyboard and other musical figures from her adopted city of Vienna (like Schubert and Mozart). The panicked jump of the audience members when Leonskaja, having lulled the venue into a sense of soothing calm with the ‘Adagio’, launched herself headlong into the frisky, ostentatious ‘Rondo’, embodied the vigour of her whole performance.
Her enthusiasm and enjoyment of the familiar, stately themes of this most grandiloquent of works was clear to see in the attention she paid the orchestra throughout their interludes. And the SCO itself gave back as good as they got; from the monumental first chord of the concerto to the racing finish, a lively Clemens Schuldt led an ensemble in dynamic form. The sprightliness of Sergei Prokofiev’s Symphony No.1 Op.25, the ‘Classical’ (1917) and its fizzing mimicry of Mozart and Haydn clashed with the morose tone of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Chamber Symphony No.1 Op.110a (1960).
In terms of the motif of war across the concert’s programme, the ‘Emperor’ Concerto is written against the backdrop of Napoleonic Europe, Prokofiev’s work during WWI and the Russian Revolution and Shostakovich’s as the Soviets began a cultural crack-down at the height of the Cold War. The choice of music was not all doom and gloom as some combat-inspired works tend to be. The often adventurous and buccaneering feel to the music, set against the occasionally sombre atmosphere, was a distinguishing stamp mark of the evening; all too often the idea of ‘conflict’ music focuses on sorrow, but this was a fresh, more self-aware look at a war repertoire.
The SCO’s next and penultimate concert of the academic year in St Andrews is on Wednesday 14th March, with a programme including Antonin Dvorak’s Violin Concerto. Tickets for St Andrews students are £6 in the stalls and can be bought on the Byre Theatre website.