REVIEW: Martin Dreyer’s verdict on Leon McCawley, Sir Jack Lyons Concert Hall, University of York, October 12

Leon McCawley: “No-one wanted to break the extraordinary spell he generated”

NO-ONE needs a second prompt when it comes to Leon McCawley. His success at the Leeds International Piano Competition, where he was runner-up in 1993, endeared him to northern audiences. Sure enough, there was a virtually full house for this generous recital, which included sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.

Yet there were more than a few times during the first half of the evening when his adrenalin seemed to take over from his judgement. That was not the case in the second half, which he devoted to Schubert’s last sonata, D.960 in B flat major.

Athletes and performers alike talk about being “in the zone”. For some, it has become something of a Holy Grail, desirable but unattainable. In other words, it is but rarely reached. McCawley found it here. He played the Schubert like a man possessed, not running amok, quite the opposite. The audience sensed it early on and kept incredibly quiet, even between movements. No-one wanted to break the extraordinary spell he generated.

In what is possibly the quietest of Schubert’s first movements, McCawley sustained a magical serenity, having taken longer than usual to start, poised over the keys but waiting. When the distant trills arrived, they carried not menace so much as weight, like a distant rumble of thunder without any rain.

Although Schubert’s multiple key-changes can easily disrupt the flow, they were not allowed to here, seeming perfectly and smoothly logical. A little acceleration here, deceleration there, which might have sounded pretentious, were all of a piece with McCawley’s intensity. This slackened not a whit in the Andante, which was deeply thoughtful and ended with the same serenity we had heard earlier.

The scherzo was fiery but light, with crisp inner voices. Gravity returned in the trio but evaporated with the scherzo’s return and peaceful conclusion. The finale was inevitably more extrovert, and even briefly stormy, but the scale was always intimate, as if secrets were being shared rather than trumpeted around the hall.

By now McCawley had the audience in the palm of his hand and could have got away with almost anything. But he kept faith with our intelligence and resisted the temptation to over-explain. It was possible to believe that this was exactly how Schubert intended it to be. Certainly it was a performance never to be forgotten.

He had opened with a brusque account of Bach’s Italian Concerto, BWV 971, which was accurate but had a scrambled feel, particularly in the final Presto. Beethoven’s E minor sonata, Op 90 was in retrospect the warm-up for the Schubert to come, shapely and with a great deal of surface feeling, but not quite penetrating to the innermost depths.

Mozart’s F major sonata, K.332 began with a pleasing clarity and ended with wit and finesse, while its central Adagio fluctuated tenderly between major and minor. But the Schubert was something else altogether.

Review by Martin Dreyer