Sanctuary Classics Resonance RSN3000

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Audiophile Audition June 2004

Originally released in 2001 on the Black Box label, and now reissued on budget-priced Resonance, this superb Beethoven collection leads off enterprisingly with the composer’s underrated C Minor Variations in which the young Leon McCawley gives a performance of exceptional beauty and insight. The Variations start off unassumingly enough but then proceeds through ten minutes of irresistible charm and poetry. The Variations often sound unnecessarily heavy, or merely a throwaway, so to hear them played with such charisma significantly expands an understanding of what Beethoven was about. The same is true of McCawley’s performance of the little Andante Favori, as flirtatious as Beethoven ever dared to be.

McCawley’s playing of the two sonatas is not quite as startlingly good, but still outstanding. Listen to the way he handles the sudden flourishes in the last movement of Op. 81a (Les Adieux) and you will hear something special.

In his brief liner notes, the pianist notes that “It has been a joy to record these works, particularly in this day and age when it is becoming increasingly difficult for artists to record well-known repertoire.” The truth is that there is always room for exceptional music making like this. And, as recorded at St George’s Brandon Hill in Bristol by Colin Rae with exceptional but unobtrusive honesty, it becomes obvious that nothing about the beauty of McCawley’s piano sound is manufactured.
Laurence Vittes

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Fanfare Magazine May/June 2004

The British pianist Leon McCawley, born in 1973, studied at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia with Eleanor Sokoloff. At the age of nineteen, he placed first in the prestigious Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna, and second in the Leeds International Beethoven Piano Competition. Since then he has pursued a successful solo career, getting excellent reviews in the European press—as well he should, for he is a fine pianist, in the tradition of Solomon and Schnabel. In interpretive details, he is faithful to the score, and his readings of this well-known literature are thoughtful and sensitive. He has a strong technique that is not used to show himself off but rather to serve the music.

The two sets of variations receive appropriate treatment: the Variations in C Minor are brilliantly played, with McCawley’s wonderfully light, détaché touch making gossamer sounds; in the op. 34 variations, the pianist brings out the humor and surprise of the different tonality and style of each variation. In both sonatas, he finds the right balance between the impulsive and the contemplative in the music—very rewarding in “Les adieux,” with its programmatic titles and character. His reading of the slow movement of the “Pathétique” is especially fine—affective, but not affected. His interesting analyses in the liner notes describe his approach, and his playing elucidates his written ideas.

I found it particularly touching that he concludes his notes with a wistful acknowledgment that it is more and more difficult for artists to record the standard repertoire, and his hope that his interpretations will bring “freshness” to these beloved pieces. He succeeds in doing this simply by playing Beethoven with love and respect.

Resonance, a new label of Sanctuary Records, did an excellent recording job in obtaining a vivid, warm piano sound. This disc is strongly recommended.
Susan Kagan

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Daily Telegraph/ December 20th 2003

McCawley shows comparable interpretative discretion on the Beethoven disc, in the Pathétique and Les Adieux Sonatas, the C minor and F major Variations and the Andante Favori. This is playing of great thoughfulness, combining lyricism and sinew in performances that have personality, mature insight and a vital sense of Beethoven’s febrile invention.
Geoffrey Norris

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American Record Guide/ January-February 2002

…This is an absolutely splendid Beethoven recital. Having won First Prize in the Ninth International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna and Second prize in the Leeds International Piano Competition in 1993, he made his BBC Proms debut with Andrew Litton and the Bournemouth Symphony two years later. Although only 27, he is already a Beethoven pianist to be reckoned with.His playing is characterised by a brilliant (but never showy) technique: dazzling passagework, luminous textures, astringent dynamics, powerful (but always musical) octaves, and left-handed contributions reminiscent of Kempff and Schnabel – and all this infused with an instinctive feel for and immersion in an echt Beethovenian style. McCawley plunges into the C-minor Variations in a no nonsense manner reminiscent of Horowitz but without his occasional brittleness and technically obsessed quest for (and achievement of) a precision that borders on sterility. This is one of the finest readings of this work I have ever heard. The same is true of his F-major Variations, which approaches Richter’s for its structural cohesiveness and unforced lyricism. As for the Andante Favori, it is simplicity itself – a reading that comes from (and goes straight to) the heart.The sonatas are also superb. In 8:1 tempos are on the fast side, and the movement unfolds with an uncoiling energy that is very exciting without ever becoming breathless; II is also a bit brisk, but that’s much better than mooning over it (the E-major episode is especially fine, with the return to A-flat deliciously accomplished); III is also brisk, but every note is there, pedalling is sparse, and the movement as a whole is scintillating. 26 is also impressive. II is especially memorable: the opening Adagio is exquisitely phrased and proceeds with beautifully voiced chords and a rubato appropriate for Beethoven. McCawley favours a deep-into-the-keys approach – which enables him to coax golden sonorities from his instrument and to make full use of his broad and varied tonal palette. The lead-in to III made me hold my breath, and III itself is magnificent from beginning to end. The conclusion is long in the making and when it finally comes the listener experiences a palpable sense of arrival. Stupendous playing. Excellent sound.

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Gramophone Awards Issue/ November 2001

An impressively detailed and mature showing from McCawley
One day I expect Leon McCawley to join the ranks of the acclaimed few we go to hear in complete cycles of the Beethoven sonatas. He is one of the best young classical pianists around, and as a long-term prospect… it would be nice to think that someone in the recording industry will contract him for sustained support, as used to happen in the old days… . Sample this nicely planned Beethoven recital anywhere for its interesting quality. The 32 Variations in C minor (track 1) are explored with relish and pinpoint characterisation and projected with a long-term thinking that is constantly suggesting worlds beyond the pattern-making of each variation; how welcome to hear the piece done as important Beethoven, for a change, and not just a finger-warmer. Similarly the two sonatas are presented with exact detailing and weighting of every strand and also a thrust that gets the phrases across bar-lines and sees each movement whole. The pace is often hot, in the homecoming finale of Les Adieux especially, but the allure is musical and comes from Beethoven, not from a player’s agitation of the surface. You notice at many points how freshness, plasticity of line and sureness of timing derive from McCawley’s understanding; his technique and finish, too, seem to arise from the same sources, as if unbidden and simply required by the matters at hand.
Stephen Plaistow

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Pianist Magazine Nov-Dec 01

Although many recordings are made in the Bristol church of St George’s, Brandon Hill, engineers seem reluctant to make full use of its warm reverberation. This disc is an exception, and I like the sense of space and location. McCawley’s illuminating but never indulgent interpretations deserve wide circulation. The Andante WoO 57 is a good illustration of his qualities. Most pianists treat it (often persuasively) as a vehicle for teasing rubato and sleights of shading, with dramatic colour changes at punctuation points. McCawley plays it straight, focusing attention on the drama that the composer himself introduces in the closing stages, when the simplest and most fluid of melodies begin to disintegrate. McCawley gets the scale of the 32 Variations in C minor just right, creating tension through the repression of emotion. The op. 34 Variations are perhaps more interesting to play than hear but McCawley lays them out with exemplary clarity. The two sonatas are full of moments that reveal discerning care for balance (for example, using the exposition repeat to gently bring out the tenor in the second subject of the Pathetique’s first movement). It is obvious that McCawley has a firm grasp of each sonata’s overall structure, so that the Pathetique finale’s outbursts are playful rather than violent, as if the slow movement has healed the pain. The last movement of Les Adieux is surely the joyful throwing off of inhibition that Beethoven intended.
Brian Hunt

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Klassik Heute/ November 2001

….the musical content and its courageous and incredibly active implementation by pianist Leon McCawley prove to be all prolific and opulent. He has chosen a varied programme with two technically demanding variations and two sonatas which tend equally to be both energetic and very human in passion and sorrow. Whatever McCawley touches, it comes to life and pulsates. He is able to create tension in order then to keep the listener as his companion en route, without any form of extravagance. A Beethoven disc, fully celebrating both the joy and struggle of life.
Peter Cossé

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BBC Music Magazine September 2001

Nimble is the mind that springs to mind here. Leon McCawley first attracted attention when he was a finalist at the Leeds Competition a few years ago. The variation sets he has chosen exemplify Beethoven as a popular composer-pianist and improviser, and even the 32 Variations in C minor are more about brilliance and excitement than profundity. In the early variations McCawley’s staccato is immaculate, his trills in the ninth smooth and melting, after which he unleashes some power, though he is never rough and his sound is always polished. You might expect something a bit more rugged in the Pathetique Sonata, but this is not McCawley’s style. He seems conscious that this is still an 18th-century work… .McCawley has a nice way of momentarily easing the pulse around the cross-hands passages, and the Adagio is kept gently moving. His restraint in Les Adieux makes for a rather mild first movement and a lightweight middle one, both with less forceful contrasts than one often hears, but the finale is agile and brilliant. The Andante favori, discarded as a slow movement for the Waldstein Sonata, is a genial piece, genially played, while the Op. 34 Variations are full of florid elaborations, expertly negotiated.
Adrian Jack