SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0680

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Gramophone, February 2022

From most pianists, this sort of grab-bag programme would tend to be a collection of personal favourites, perhaps played from idiosyncratic points of view, providing charming but ultimately little more than highly personal readings. Not so with Leon McCawley. Obviously, it’s a programme of long- and well-loved pieces, adroitly arranged around a larger thematic idea, highlighting the individual qualities of each work, while acknowledging their commonalities. Yet one also has the sense that every piece has been minutely and thoroughly examined, distilled so that its fundamental essence has been freshly and sometimes surprisingly revealed. Bookended between the two Norwegians Sinding and Grieg are composers of Hungarian, French and Russian origins, making this varied programme richly cosmopolitan.

Nestled amid a bouquet of French Impressionism are four works of Debussy and two of Ravel, played with idiomatic flair, special acumen and bracing originality. I’ve returned to them repeatedly and with growing pleasure. If Godowsky’s transcription of ‘The Swan’ of Saint-Saëns seems rather grotesquely overdressed, that doesn’t preclude its delivery with style and sensitivity.

McCawley is a perceptive and persuasive Liszt player and the four pieces, drawn from the First and Third Années de pèlerinage, stand, in terms of both length and portent, as anchors of the programme. Each is of course a beautifully executed masterpiece of tonal scene painting. Listening to ‘Au bord d’une source’, for instance, one can easily imagine crouching near an Alpine spring, watching the play of sunlight on the bubbling waters. McCawley’s approach to the Alpine storm depicted in ‘Orage’ is distinctive in his refusal to let the aural landscape become swamped with pedal. The glassy surface of ‘Au lac de Wallenstadt’ fairly shimmers as the surrounding mountains seem to echo the slightest sound. And when, at bar 144 of ‘Les jeux d’eau á la Villa d’Este’, the superscription from St John reveals that, in addition to being a depiction in sound of Ippolito II d’Este’s Renaissance gardens, the piece is also a metaphor for Christian mysticism, it seems, well, perfectly natural.

All told, this scintillatingly varied recital combines sensuous virtuosity, compelling charm and musical probity. Highly recommended.
Patrick Rucker

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Textura (Canada), February 2024

Having issued acclaimed SOMM recordings featuring music by Haydn, Barber, Chopin, Schubert, and others, British pianist Leon McCawley now turns his attention to twenty-one works inspired by nature. While those four aren’t part of Natural Connection, nine other nineteenth- and twentieth-century composers provide a representative account of music written in response to the changing seasons and the planet’s flora and fauna. Naturally, expressive pieces by Debussy, Ravel, and Saint-Saëns appear on the piano recital, but so too do Bartók, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Christian Sinding. If the collection leans towards figures associated with Romanticism and Impressionism, musically it’s all the more satisfying for doing so.

Natural Connection allows his artistry to be experienced with nothing but his own eloquent playing on display. Many of the pieces are miniatures, with only a handful pushing past five minutes. With four pieces by each, Liszt and Debussy are the most-represented; Grieg, by comparison, appears thrice, while Tchaikovsky, Bartók, Ravel, and Rachmaninov each appear twice. Of the works, the most familiar are Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Saint-Saëns’ “The Swan,” but the expressive readings they’re given by McCawley makes them no less welcome.

The inaugural reverie comes from Norwegian composer Sinding and his 1896 Rustle of Spring, Op. 32 No. 3, its sparkling ripples redolent of much of what follows on the seventy-eight-minute set. Already McCawley’s awesome command is evident in the fluid coupling of the work’s tremulous patterns, not to mention his gifts as an interpreter. A similar impression of the pianist’s talents emerges upon hearing his stirring rendition of Debussy’s “Jardins sous la Pluie” (from the 1903 suite Estampes) and its sound-painting of gardens drenched by rain. The pianist’s beguiling treatment of “Clair de Lune” (from 1905’s Suite Bergamasque) amplifies its poetic allure, the playfulness of “The Snow is Dancing” (from Children’s Corner) is endearing, and the fantastical aura emanating from 1904’s L’isle joyeuse bolsters its magical effect.

All four of the Liszt settings derive from the collection Années de pèlerinage (Years of Pilgrimage), three books of which were produced over a period of approximately fifty years. Up first is the delicately sighing “Au lac de Wallenstadt,” whose picturesque details evoke the image of a boat gently drifting across the water’s surface and the hushed stillness of the setting. Whereas the florid “Au bord d’une source” sparkles vividly, the declamatory “Orage” is turbulent (rather Mussorgsky-esque too). Less harrowing a ride is “Les beaux d’eau à la villa d’Este” whenit buoys the listener with gently rippling cascades. Bartók’s irreverent miniature “From the Diary of a Fly” comes from Mikrokosmos, the 153-piece collection composed between 1925 and 1939. In contrast to the brevity of that selection is “The Night’s Music,” the spooky fourth movement from his 1926 piano suite Out of Doors.

From Saint-Saëns’ Le Carnaval des animaux, “The Swan” (in Leopold Godowsky’s transcription) radiates resplendently under the pianist’s touch. Ravel’s entrancing “Oiseaux Tristes” (from the 1905 suite Miroirs) and flowing Jeux d’Eau make splendid arguments on behalf of the composer’s singular artistry. With Lilacs, Op. 21 No. 5 and Daises, Op. 38 No. 3, Rachmaninov shows he’s no slouch in the atmospherically suggestive department either. From Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons comes the third of its dozen pieces, “Song of the Lark,”a bright reverie whose trilling melodies convincingly suggest the vocalizations of the titular creature. In keeping with the time of year, the contemplative “Autumn Song” (also from The Seasons) exudes melancholy and longing. Evocative sound painting is similarly demonstrated by Grieg in “Butterfly” and “Little Bird,” two playful vignettes from the sixty-six contained in the Scandinavian composer’s Lyric Pieces, Op. 43.

Classical Music Daily described McCawley’s 2018 Schubert release as “a meaningful, eloquent performance [that] offers many memorable moments,” words that could as easily be applied to this latest stellar addition to his discography. All of the composers are in excellent hands when he’s at the keyboard.

Full review link HERE

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Midlands Classical Music Making, February 11th 2024

In the 1960s and ‘70s record labels frequently released compilations of piano favourites – I remember buying discs by John Ogden and Maura Lympany. They were a great way for newcomers to sample popular keyboard works but the selections could be rather random – the LP equivalent of the I-Pod shuffle – this new collection brings coherence with the theme of nature. Leon McCawley opens with Sinding’s ‘Rustle of Spring’, which a century ago was subjected to grievous bodily harm by legions of amateur pianists, but here wafts sinuously in a flurry of perfectly placed notes. McCawley is immensely versatile: Liszt’s ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’Este’ is all sparkling spumante while his ‘Au bord d’une source’ is truly ‘dolce tranquillo’ and Debussy’s ‘The Snow is Dancing’ is magical. Good to see McCawley’s sense of humour at play – only a miserabilist couldn’t raise a smile at Bartok’s buzzing ‘From the Diary of a Fly’. First class recording quality too.
Norman Stinchcombe

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