SOMM Recordings SOMMCD 0680

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Pianist, April/May 2024

Leon McCawley’s latest recital offers pieces inspired by the natural world. He makes some delightful connections in his choices of repertoire. We go straight from a thunderous performance of Liszt’s ‘Orage’ (from the Années de pèlerinage), for example, to a mysteriously unsettling rendition of Bartók’s The Night’s Music: it’s as if Liszt’s storm has exhausted nature itself. A wonderfully unsentimental account of Debussy’s Clair de lune leads into Saint-Saëns’ The Swan (arr. Godowsky): one can imagine the swan gliding along in the very same moonlight. Grieg’s chirpy Little Bird is followed by Ravel’s much more melancholy Oiseaux tristes. Other great nature-lovers such as Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky are well represented, and the recital opens with an uncobwebby account of Sinding’s barnstormer Rustle of Spring, reminding us what a fantastic piece it is, despite its ubiquity. All in all, a recital of enormous pictorial charm.
Warwick Thompson

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Diapason, April 2024

In these times of environmental anxiety, this programme conceived by Leon McCawley brings us comfort. The piano sings of a smiling and preserved nature, whether it be the flora (Lilacs Op. 21 No. 5 and Daisies Op. 38 No. 3 by Rachmaninov), the insects (Butterfly Op. 43 No. 1 by Grieg), From the Diary of a Fly taken from Bartók’s Mikrokosmos or the Swiss lake of Wallenstadt by Liszt. Pleasantly designed, the walk is refreshing – sometimes literally, the storm (Orage) of Liszt’s Années de Pèlerinage adjacent to the Ravelian Jeux d’eau. 

A Diapason d’or was awarded to him in 2007 for his complete Mozart sonatas (Avie), followed by another gleaned from Haydn ten years later: McCawley is as comfortable in Lisztian gushing and cascades (Au bord d’une source, Jeux d’eau à la villa d’Este) as in Bartok’s subdued halftones (The Night’s Music). The fluidity and freedom of his playing benefits from excellent sound, recorded close to the instrument but without harshness.
Marc Lesage

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BBC Music Magazine, April 2024

Never heard these days in serious recitals, Christian Sinding’s ubiquitous ‘Rustle of Spring’ opens a programme that takes its own picturesque intent seriously enough. So the first thing to note is that it is a pleasure to hear the filigree writing in this work played with such poise as Leon McCawley supplies here. Though his programmes of pieces inspired by nature is not arranged as a seasonal cycle, it does visit the ‘Autumn’ movement of Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons before coming full circle to another Norwegian thaw, ending with ‘To the Spring’ from Grieg’s Lyric Pieces.

The main element that unites this series of 21 small piano pieces by ten composers is that they are all miniature paintings with its emphasis on clever and attractive programming. McCawley is a sensitive interpreter, not least in Debussy and Ravel.

Nor is his programme all about Romantic and Impressionist scenes; there’s humour too, in ‘From the Diary of a Fly’ from Mikrokosmos by Bartók (who’s also represented more seriously, and in nocturnal mode, by ‘The Night’s Music’ from his ‘Out of Doors’ suite, again beautifully played). Even more ubiquitous than Sinding, there’s Saint-Saen’s ‘The Swan’, but transcriptions find their place here thanks also to Rachmaninov’s own piano versions of his songs.
John Allinson

Performance ****
Recording ****

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Interlude, 13th March 2024

A perfect prelude to Spring, this delightful new release from British pianist Leon McCawley presents solo piano music inspired by the natural world.

Nature and the seasons provide eternal inspiration for composers, and here we have ‘the best of the best’ – from Liszt to Ravel, Grieg and Debussy and more in a generous recital album of some of the most beautiful, evocative, and much-loved music ever written for the piano.

The selection of pieces, mostly atmospheric miniatures, takes a roughly seasonal approach, beginning with Sindling’s Rustle of Spring, which evokes nature waking up after the winter. While Tchaikovsky’s Song of the Lark (March, from The Seasons) is a poignant reminder that the chill of winter may still intrude upon sunny spring days. Liszt brings the fresh, clear waters of lakes and streams alive in Au lac de Wallenstadt and Au bord d’une source, two of three pieces from his Swiss Années de pèlerinage, which evoke the beauty and clarity of the Alps, while his Orage (Storm) reminds us how the weather can suddenly change in the Alpine landscape. Debussy’s Jardins sous la Pluie places a rain shower in a more domestic, yet equally atmospheric setting. Water provides further opportunities for evocative music, from the magical play of fountains and sparkling light on water (Liszt’s Les jeux d’eau à la villa d’Este and Ravel’s Jeux d’eau to a joyful voyage on the sea Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse).

Wildlife gets a mention too. There’s Bartok’s buzzy Diary of a Fly from Mikrokosmos, Saint-Saens’ Swan, and a Butterfly by Grieg. Ravel’s Oiseaux Tristes from Miroirs casts a more melancholy light and links to Bartok’s The Night’s Music (from Out of Doors), which portrays the curious, unsettling night-time noises and rustlings of nocturnal creatures. Debussy’s Clair de lune, meanwhile, offers a more calming evocation of night-time. Step into the garden, and there are flowers in two pieces by Rachmaninov – blousy lilacs, their blooms heavy on the branch, and delicate daisies.

It’s a truly delightful recording to which Leon McCawley brings his characteristic tastefulness and clarity. Water really does glitter in his hands, lyrical melodies are deftly sculpted and sensitively phrased, and every single piece on this album is communicated with great care and obvious affection. The pieces were clearly chosen for their individual charms but also their complementary attributes and stylistic connections. The result is an uplifting, joyful celebration of the wonders of the natural world, exquisitely performed by Leon McCawley.

Read the full review HERE
Frances Wilson

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International Piano, Spring 2024

New from Somm is a recital album featuring the fine pianist and intelligent musician Leon McCawley: ‘Natural Connection- Piano Music Inspired by the Natural World’…as a showreel for the talents of the superb McCawley it is highly persuasive. The two Bartók items, ‘From the Diary of a Fly’ and ‘The Night’s Music’, are examples of magnificent pianism, and McCawley is equally impressive and sure-footed in the selections from Liszt’s ‘Années de Pèlerinage’.
Jonathan Dobson

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Gramophone, February 2024

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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