Solo Recital at Wigmore Hall, March 19th 2021
[In] Schubert’s Drei Klavierstücke McCawley captured the driven febrile quality of the first piece with its racing triplets and there was close attention to detail and richly varied tonal and dynamic contrasts. The second piece in E flat is the most famous of the set and it received a ravishing performance here. The opening section was enchanting and a rare moment of poetic beauty. Both here and in the ensuing two episodes McCawley gave a masterclass on how to make the piano sing. The third piece with its syncopations was robust and lively in equal measure and I loved the handling of the modulation ushering in the central section. McCawley’s virtuoso technique came to the fore in the coda driving the set to an exhilarating conclusion.
McCawley next performed two Slåtter by Grieg…I found McCawley’s performance very engaging and attractive and came away wanting to listen to more of them.
The final work on the programme was Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze…McCawley played in a free and unfettered way which brought Schumann’s flights of fancy and mercurial shifts of mood vividly to life. Each of the pieces were beautifully characterised as we moved from the inward musings of the second piece to the raucous humour of the third and the nervy impatience of the fourth. McCawley’s phrasing was exquisite in the fifth piece before he unleashed his virtuoso credentials in the sixth with its demanding left hand. The characterisation of the twelfth piece was spiky and piquant while in the following piece McCawley created an adrenaline rush. The work ended on a note of poetic reflection as Eusebius had the last word.
Once again this was an absolutely superb recital with a consistently high level of playing from beginning to end.
Solo Recital at Wigmore Hall, October 10th 2020
The recital opened with Schubert’s A Major Sonata D664…there was much to admire in McCawley’s sterling interpretation of this work. He adopted a nice flowing tempo in the opening Allegro and shaped the opening lyrical melody beautifully. He displayed enormous sensitivity and tenderness while also breathing life into the more dramatic elements of the work and the strong dynamic contrasts. The slow movement was poetic and eloquent, and McCawley did a wonderful job in capturing the reflective intimacy of the music. The finale was enchanting as Schubert’s scales and runs bubbled along delightfully.
Janáček’s On an Overgrown Path is a set of miniatures based on Moravian folksong…I had not heard McCawley in this repertoire before, but I am pleased to report that it suits him extremely well. His performance was idiomatic and evocative and conveyed beautifully the essence of each of these miniatures. ‘Our Evenings’ had a wistful nostalgic quality while ‘A Leaf Blown Away’ captured the fluttering of the leaf with exquisite finesse. McCawley brilliantly captured the thematic contrasts and startling rhythmic changes in the music. ‘Words Fail!’ opened in sombre brooding fashion but moved seamlessly to radiant lyricism. The final three pieces in the set show Janáček’s preoccupation with the recent death of his daughter and the music is very unsettled and ambiguous. McCawley’s playing was nuanced and insightful, crystallising the very complex emotions at play.
The final work on the programme was Schumann’s Kreisleriana…McCawley captured the angry, agitated state of the first piece brilliantly as rapid semiquavers swept to the top of the piano. The central section, where Eusebius makes his first appearance, maintained the flow while allowing the expressive lyricism of the music to shine through. McCawley’s articulation in the third piece was very impressive indeed. The triplet semiquavers which open the piece conjured up a whiff of diabolism while the coda was a virtuoso tour de force. McCawley’s performance of the slow fourth piece was rapt while the central section was pure poetry. The dotted rhythms of the fifth piece were dispatched with elan and McCawley captured the mischievous impish quality of the music. Schumann marks the final piece in the set ‘fast and playful’ although it is a curious mixture of styles. McCawley seemed to inject a slightly dark sinister quality into the opening section with its very soft dynamics and tripping rhythms. The central section in contrast was passionate and heartfelt as the composer’s beloved Clara seemed to come into focus one final time.
Overall, this was an extremely impressive piano recital featuring a consistently high standard of playing throughout. I hope that Leon McCawley will record some of Janáček’s piano music in future as his performance deserves to be heard much more widely.
Benchmark online recordings of Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 109
Ilkley Gazette, December 9th 2019
Solo Recital at King’s Hall, Ilkley
The programme of works McCawley played in Ilkley earlier this week allowed him brilliantly to showcase further his considerable virtuosic talents. Three longish compositions – a late sonata by Schubert (his D958), Chopin’s Polonaise-Fantaisie and Brahms’ Four Klavierstücke – made up its core, with a set of shorter ones – two late fugues by Hans Gál, Schumann’s Abegg Variations and Haydn’s sonata No.54 – illuminating the periphery.
He began in the 18th century with the ever-popular Haydn, which has to be executed with the greatest possible precision for it to work its brief magic on audiences. McCawley did not disappoint, playing its second movement with sparkling crispness, bringing out fully its pianistic witticisms. He took us next to the 19th century, to hear one of Schubert’s most troubling sonatas, which he executed with enormous thoughtfulness, especially its beauteous slow movement. The work’s manic finale was also confidently navigated. McCawley’s quick fingers were again evident in Schumann’s near contemporaneous and youthful set of charming variations, which he complemented with a thoughtfully restrained rendering of Gál’s two brief 20th century pieces. Then, back to the 19th century for, first, Brahms and, to conclude, Chopin. The former’s set of character pieces, which are, by turn, melancholic, poetic, skittish, humorous and dramatic, was played by McCawley with impressive attention to detail. The latter’s very tricky improvisatory rhythms were performed with passionate conviction and mercurial virtuosity.
McCawley smiled often as he played; his audience justifiably did too.
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Darlington and Stockton Times, March 24th 2019
Solo Recital for Darlington Music Society
McCawley immediately impressed with a fluent and confident performance [of Mozart’s Sonata K279]. Beethoven’s Sonata Op. 111 is a particular favourite and in the opening movement there was an almost physical dimension with notes reverberating or held in suspense. Throughout it was played with great clarity and authority with the many changes in tempo beautifully judged, drawing one in to its elevated world before finally being let down ever so gently.
The second set opened with Schumann’s Abegg Variations, a wonderful opportunity to show off the pianist’s virtuosity, followed by Hans Gál’s Three Sketches which ranged from the tender and wistful to the rather more dashing. I rather liked McCawley’s light touch in Brahms Op. 119 and the full-flowing, wide-ranging but always coherent Polonaise-Fantasie Op. 61 by Chopin which he invested with the same care and attention he’d given to the Beethoven Sonata.
A gentle encore, Schumann’s At Evening Time, was a satisfyingly serene bonus.
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The Cross-Eyed Pianist, August 19th 2018
Solo Recital at Stoller Hall, Manchester
Leon McCawley’s concert was one of those occasions where the reviewer’s role is rendered largely redundant! What can I say about a performance of Mozart’s Piano Sonata K279 whose outer movements sparkled with wit and good humour, contrasting with an Andante of understated operatic drama and elegance? Or Richter’s favourite Schubert Sonata, the genial D894, performed with such taste, clarity and sensitivity that we never lost sight of the overall arc of this long sonata. So many little details – of melody, rhythm and harmony – were deftly managed to create a compelling and fluent musical narrative that was expansive yet also highly intimate. McCawley caught Schubert’s fleeting moods, his unexpected volte-faces (often signalled by “distant” harmonies or rests), with lyricism and grace.
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Birmingham Post, February 15th 2018
Solo Recital at Artrix, Bromsgrove
Bromsgrove Concerts’ imaginative programming brings hidden rewards, there in abundance on Friday when pianist Leon McCawley led us off the beaten track with a fascinating sequence of comparative rarities.
We have perhaps more media-glittering pianists, but none can surpass McCawley in his thoughtfulness of approach, and his ability to make himself as one with an instrument new to him. His pedalling on Bromsgrove’s piano was so subtly coloured, so well-contoured to the phrasing going on up above on the keyboard, and always so right for the music under discussion.
Haydn’s C minor Sonata launched the evening, a mysterious work bridging the deft precision of Scarlatti and the generous phrasing of early Romanticism, McCawley drawing out its personality and making much of its caressing thirds and cross-hand virtuosity. There was more C minor in the shape of Beethoven’s amazingly terse 32 Variations, their Sarabande-like launching-pad a wonderful context for a dazzling sequence in which we were charmed by colour and gripped by McCawley’s articulation — all this in  minutes, in a work which every music-lover ought to get to know better. Between these two came three Preludes by Hans Gal, a refugee from the Nazis who settled in Scotland, and whose music as evidenced here, despite influences as disparate as Mussorgsky and Brahms, has nevertheless a definite personality of its own. Schubert’s beatific G major Sonata concluded, McCawley displaying stamina both intellectual and physical over its lengthy span, and spreading a rapt stillness which lasted long after its conclusion.
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Malvern Concert Club, November 2017
Solo Recital at Malvern Theatres, 23rd November 2017
This recital of mainly nineteenth-century piano music began with a near-immaculate performance of Mozart’s early Sonata K.282. This sonata, from 1774, is easily overlooked, and McCawley showed how profound it can be when performed with an alert musical intelligence, an astonishing control of the keyboard and care for every detail. The total absence of ‘attitude’ allowed this music to speak for itself. In contrast, Schubert’s Three Pieces D.946 are extended studies in Romantic expression, demanding demonstrative presence from the performer. McCawley’s playing was always beautiful, the textures gorgeously shimmering and rippling…
The second half began with three of Liszt’s arrangements of Schubert’s songs, and here a delicate balance was maintained between Romantic expression and Classical clarity, Die junge Nonne suitably restless, Du bist die Rüh’ rapturously restrained. Auf dem Wasser zu singen became ever more exciting, eventually erupting at the end when, for a glorious moment, the pianist threw caution to the wind. In contrast, Brahms’s Three Intermezzi Op. 117 had a lovely intimacy…Finally, came Chopin’s crowd-puller, the Polonaise in A flat, Op. 53. Once again the performance was immaculate, those ferocious left-hand octaves in the second section very fast but perfectly executed…this was a wonderful recital, aptly concluded with the encore, Schumann’s Abschied (‘Farewell’).
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Classical Source March 1st 2016
Wigmore Hall Solo Recital March 1st 2016
Every time in this excellent Wigmore Hall recital when I thought I’d nailed the main, generating aspect of Leon McCawley’s style, he’d confound expectations. His seemingly ascetic, self-contained persona would deftly step aside to allow comedy, fantasy and passion to hold the floor, on the back of a disarmingly profound and mercurial virtuosity, and his playing just sounded right.
Take Haydn’s Sonata in C, one of his late London works, which seems tailored to a particularly English sense of mischief. McCawley opened it properly enough, but soon the first movement was poking its nose into downright anarchy. The pianist’s engagement with the cut and thrust of musical dialogue quickly developed into a masterpiece of imagination and control, manifested in all those teasing pauses, swells of exaggeration and sexy decorations. Particularly in the Keyboard Sonatas, I’ve been amazed by the games Haydn plays and by his elaborate system of checks and balances, and McCawley was every bit equal to the broader plan as much as to the crazily articulate detail. His playing gave little away to ‘period’ manners, but his use of pedal, his variety of touch and his sharp-witted response to the highways and byways of Haydn’s sublime good humour guaranteed delight.
McCawley’s most recent recording (on the Somm label) is of the Rachmaninov Preludes, and his choice of three from the Opus 23 set gave a good idea of his late-romantic sympathies – you were aware both of the considerable craft of his playing and of the generosity of feeling. He drew reserves of richness and colour from the piano for the grandeur of No. 4, and the ‘Alla marcia’ of No.5 came with extra military bite. The fortissimos weren’t always the most beautiful sound, but there was no doubt how close McCawley is to the veil of Rachmaninov’s emotional complexity.
You don’t have to scratch far beneath the surface of much of Mendelssohn’s music to discern a barely contained anxiety, which McCawley exploited to great effect in Variations sérieuses, composed as a homage to Beethoven. Even by Mendelssohn’s standards, it’s a technically demanding work, and McCawley unfolded the accumulative elaboration of the Variations in a seamless flow of music that hovers in the slipstream of both Bach and Beethoven. You could hear how the piano figuration defers to Beethoven, sometimes at his most angular, and develops it without excess but with a great deal of accumulative pressure, played by McCawley with majestic security.
His range of colour was a dominant factor in his reading of Chopin’s 24 Preludes, launched with a very Schumann-like yearning quality in the First of the set. There was a hauntingly lifeless tone to the accompaniment of the Second that prepared the ear for the range of characterisation he brought to all 24, and, however familiar they may be, McCawley’s approach gave the sequence a fresh sense of inevitability. He allowed the longer Preludes to expand in a way that gave added substance to the shorter ones, he didn’t overplay rubato or the moments of grandiose oratory, and his virtuosity was both easy and primarily a vehicle of expression. It’s a long time since I heard such a cohesively planned and executed account. McCawley returned to Rachmaninov for his encore, the Fifth Prelude from Opus 32.
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Washington Post November 17th 2014
Solo Recital at Phillips Collection, Washington DC
A performance this weekend by British pianist Leon McCawley was another strong offering in the Phillips Collection’s excellent Sunday concert series…McCawley is a thoughtful, lyrical pianist, and he played everything with erudition, imagination and fastidiousness.
McCawley’s simplicity, which concealed great art, was an object lesson in the myriad ways a fine pianist can create the illusion of tone color — the weight and voicing of chords, the balance between the two hands, pedaling, dynamic control and, above all, phrasing. When those elements work together, the ear is cosseted and coddled and the listener begins to conflate artistic beauty with an imaginary tonal beauty. From the opening bars of a Beethoven trifle — variations on “Nel cor piu non mi sento” — McCawley showed his grasp of this interplay.
McCawley took further care with Beethoven’s Sonata No. 5, where strict counting created a bracing effect. He next played Chopin’s Scherzo No. 2, which, juxtaposed with the gentle Mendelssohn miniatures, was jarring. But the piece was perhaps the highlight of the recital, with sizzling virtuosity at the end of the middle section and in the coda.
The “Petrarch Sonnet 123” again showed off McCawley’s ability to create the illusion of actual song. And the three-part supplement to “Venezia e Napoli” was vividly imaginative, from the spraying fountains of “Gondoliera” to the brooding menace of the “Canzone” (based on “Othello”) to the exuberance and flouncing skirts of the “Tarantelle,” the fast, repeated notes dazzling.
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Birmingham Post October 9th 2014
Solo Recital at Artrix, Bromsgrove
Bromsgrove Concerts’ new season opened with a visit from one of our foremost pianists, Leon McCawley, in a highly satisfying programme of the core classical repertoire.
McCawley is a mature and self-possessed artist‚ whose playing is an intriguing balance of delicacy, detail and drama, and although everything was carefully considered, a feeling of spontaneity permeated the evening.
After the opening Beethoven Variations on a theme of Paisiello (one of many Italian connections throughout his recital), we heard a crisp and dramatic performance of Beethoven’s Sonata op. 10/1, an abrupt and dark opening, a poised warm and glowing slow movement, like an inspired improvisation, and a finale full of wit and edge of the seat timing.
Three elegant Mendelssohn Songs without words received no less care, beautifully shaped within a deliberately restricted dynamic range. It was after the interval that McCawley’s muscular technique was allowed its freest expression.
Four Rachmaninov Preludes received aristocratic, magisterial performances; foreground effortlessly separated from background amid the torrent of notes, and as impressive as the climaxes were, even more so was the subsequent gradual descent from passion to reflection.
The highlight was Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnet 123. Rapt, still music, with its pre-echoes of the love music from Tristan. I am temperamentally allergic to the over-insistent rhetoric and crowd-pleasing aspects of some of Liszt’s work, and so I found it odd to hear such a fastidious artist apply his Apollonian gifts to the Dionysian bombast and acrobatics of the finale – Venezia e Napoli. Even here McCawley couldn’t help but find purely musical solutions to the many pictorial challenges in the piece, ranging from the dark and sinister ripples of Venezia, to the repeated note mandolin impressions and more, in the astonishing pianistic feats of the final Tarantella. Premeditated yet daredevil playing.*****
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The Cross-Eyed Pianist March 7th 2014
Solo Recital at St. Peter’s Eaton Square, March 6th 2014
McCawley gave an energetic account of the first movement [Beethoven Sonata Op. 10/1], its dark and angular opening sentence contrasted with a lyrical second subject, the entire movement crisply articulated with fine attention to the string quartet and orchestral writing and startling dynamic changes. The middle movement offered a respite from the darkly- hued outer movements. Scored in warm-hearted A -flat major, it was an opportunity to enjoy some fine legato playing. The final movement was a burst of nervous energy which allowed him to highlight not only the dramatic possibilities inherent in Beethoven’s writing, but also the composer’s wit: the movement ends with a slower coda and a final sentence which is almost a whisper.
In the Songs Without Words by Mendelssohn there was further opportunity to enjoy McCawley’s exceptionally fine legato playing. Beloved of Victorian salons, Mendelssohn invented the concept of the Lieder Ohne Worte, and produced eight volumes of these varied and lyrical miniatures. McCawley’s selection of just three from the Opp 38, 19 and 30 was intimate, expressive and poignant.
Brahms’ Two Rhapsodies Op 79 closed the first half of the evening, McCawley giving free rein to the climactic nature of these works and capitalising on the rich bass sonorities of the piano. It also set the scene for the Rachmaninov which followed after the interval.
Rachmaninov was following the precedent set by Chopin’s Preludes, and his two sets Op 23 and 32 complete the twenty four. In the Op 32 set, Rachmaninov uses four pairs of parallel keys (E, F A and B, major/minor) but no relative keys. Each Prelude opens with a tiny melodic or rhythmic fragment on which the whole is built. Alert to the contrasting and varied nature of these short works, McCawley gave an account that was committed and emotionally charged, highlighting both the expansiveness of Rachmaninov’s writing as well as the interior details of each piece.
What better way to close than with an encore of Schumann’s Traumerei, tenderly delivered.
Full review at: http://crosseyedpianist.com/2014/03/07/leon-mccawley-at-eaton-square/
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Seen and Heard International January 11th 2013
Solo Recital at Wigmore Hall, London
An Excellent and Varied Recital from Leon McCawley
Since winning first prize at the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna, Leon McCawley has released a series of critically acclaimed recordings (most recently of piano music by Brahms), and I was delighted to see that he opted to play one of the works from that disc at this concert.
McCawley opened the evening’s very diverse proceedings with Bach’s perennially popular Italian Concerto, which was published in 1735. The opening Allegro (there is no tempo marking in the score but it is fairly clear that the movement is an Allegro) was brisk and light with McCawley demonstrating a nice variety of touch and excellent articulation. The central andante was played in a simple and unaffected way and the decorated right hand line was elegantly delineated… The sparkling presto finale was playful and inventive with McCawley clearly on top of the fleet-fingered passagework and bringing energy and buoyancy to the contrapuntal exchanges.
Brahms’ Op 39 Waltzes are not played as often as they should be on the concert platform and it is great to see a pianist of McCawley’s stature championing these pieces. The programme notes reminded us that Brahms was a great admirer of Johann Strauss and the Op 39 Waltzes are influenced both by his waltzes and those of Schubert. McCawley kept the opening waltz light and graceful, successfully setting the scene for an evening of easy Viennese charm. The cradle song waltz in E major was played with real warmth and tenderness with McCawley giving us some beautifully tapered phrasing. The bubbling scherzo waltz in C sharp was played with infectious effervescence while the D minor was suitably nostalgic and elegiac. There was some highly expressive and richly layered playing throughout the set with McCawley keen to make the most of Brahms’ inner voices and rich harmonic progressions. The famous penultimate waltz in A flat was played with beguiling charm and delicacy before McCawley brought the set to an end with a probing and insightful performance of the final waltz.
The first half concluded with Chopin’s scherzo in C sharp minor which the composer wrote in 1839. McCawley perfectly captured the sense of disquiet in the opening and the ensuing stormy double octave passage was dispatched with aplomb. The arpeggio figurations linking the chorale theme were feathery light while the virtuoso coda was executed with brilliance and panache.
The second half of the concert opened with three works from diverse composers all trying to depict the sound of bells. McCawley brought out the impressionistic elements in the Liszt and did a splendid job in drawing in the listener and depicting the dramatic arc and narrative of the piece. There was a vivid and imaginative range of colours, textures and sonorities in the Debussy and some excellent layering of sound. Rachmaninov’s Étude-tableau was probably inspired by Scriabin’s funeral in Moscow in 1915 and it is a rather stark and brooding piece. McCawley brought out nicely the tone painting and elegiac qualities of the work.
The degree of technical finish and attention to detail was uniformly excellent throughout this recital but McCawley’s performance of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ variations was the highlight for me. He nailed the deadpan wit and humour of the opening and used a wide range of tone colour to bring out the dramatic contrasts. The bustle and voicing of the material was superb with McCawley showing an excellent understanding of the motivic relationships and underlying musical structure – some of the unexpected harmonic twists and turns sounded completely fresh-minted and came as a genuine surprise. As the variations progressed, the audience became increasingly caught up in the infectious fun, vivid characterisation and rag bag of surprises. The embroidered figurations in the largo variation were beautifully controlled while the contrapuntal textures and voicing were deftly handled. This was a glorious finish to a highly enjoyable concert.
As an encore McCawley gave a rapt and poetically nuanced performance of Schumann’s ‘Des Abends’.
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Bachtrack January 10th 2013
Solo Recital at Wigmore Hall
McCawley…seamlessly combines flawless technique and versatility with immaculate presentation and musical integrity, and a calm, self-possessed stage presence, never more evident than in this programme, which contrasted the mannered elegance of Bach with the romanticism of Chopin, the impressionism of Liszt, Debussy and Rachmaninov, and the wit and humour of Beethoven.
Read the full review at: http://www.bachtrack.com/review-wigmore-hall- leon-mccawley-bach-rachmaninov
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Birmingham Post 23rd November 2012
Solo Recital at Artrix, Bromsgrove
This country is blessed with a generation of pianists who have moved seamlessly from young lionhood to wise experience, and right at the top of that list is Leon McCawley.
Returning to Bromsgrove Concerts with a brilliantly-constructed recital, he began with the all-important “Bernstein moment” (catching the only instant when a performance can be launched) before he embarked upon an eloquent, crisp and totally engaging account of Bach’s Italian Concerto, gleefully relishing its finger- twisting part-writing, and rapt in the darkly emotional andante.
Brahms’ Op. 39 16 Waltzes were delivered with character, charm, warm pedalling, telling bass lines emerging from well-sculpted textures and a sensitive shaping of dynamics.
Then came the heroism of Chopin’s Scherzo no.3, McCawley’s controlled intensity enhanced by rippling figurations. This was a reading which focussed our attention entirely upon this wonderful piece.
Three bell-inspired compositions followed, Liszt and Debussy, ending with Rachmaninov, whose C minor Etude-Tableau cast such a sinister, quasi-liturgical atmosphere. And again, McCawley’s precise articulation and tactful pedalling provided such a persuasive presence.
All of these were riches enough, but the concluding offering would in itself have made the evening worthwhile. Beethoven’s Eroica Variations (such an important work in the composer’s own psyche) found a fabulous advocate in McCawley, witty, affectionate, well-coloured, and, where necessary, played with an unflashy panache which never distracted from the music. If McCawley hasn’t already recorded this piece, then some company must sign him up so to do.
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Bachtrack.com May 8th 2012
BBC Radio 3 Lunchtime Recital from Wigmore Hall
Schumann’s Carnaval…was played with warmth, richness, wit, tenderness and, at times, poignancy, suffused with intelligence and understanding, though the rambunctiousness of the party, and the foot-tapping melodies of the carnaval were never far away.
Full review at: http://www.bachtrack.com/review-leon-mccawley-wigmore-hall-lunchtime
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International Piano July/August 2011
Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas at King’s Place
Leon McCawley gave a marathon performance of Mozart’s complete sonatas. There’s absolutely no vanity in his playing, which is bright, clean and unfailingly communicative. In his hands, the Mozartian oeuvre emerged with striking vividness. He brought out the sonatas’ hints of chamber music and opera with delightful ease and grace.
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Bachtrack.com April 18th 2011
Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas at King’s Place (Concert 4)
In McCawley’s skilful hands, Mozart sparkled, playful and elegant, vivacious and witty, inventive and fresh. Coupled with flawless technique, McCawley’s readings are neither overly romantic, nor too fragile. He lends seriousness where it is due, a delightful intimacy, or an orchestral richness, while also standing back to allow the music to speak for itself. This was exceptional Mozart-playing of the highest quality. Full review at: http://www.bachtrack.com/review-leon-mccawley-plays-mozart
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Guardian December 3rd 2010
Solo Recital at Queen Elizabeth Hall (International Piano Series)
Samuel Barber’s centenary could have been the opportunity for audiences to explore beyond the composer’s popular Adagio, Knoxville and Violin Concerto. But it is December of the anniversary year now, and Barber has mostly been a road not taken.
Double honour, therefore, to Leon McCawley for programming Barber as the climax of his Southbank piano recital and for proving that Barber’s 1949 Piano Sonata deserves a more secure place in the repertoire too.
Wagner said that Brahms’s Handel variations, which McCawley played before the interval, showed what could still be done with old forms by someone who knew how to use them. Much the same could be said of Barber’s sonata, with its taut and well organised four-movement structure and its very Brahmsian use of a passacaglia and fugue. McCawley’s playing, lithe and clear, was well-suited to bringing out the piece’s architecture. His controlled virtuosity was a delight, too, especially in the second movement’s light touch scampers. Earlier, McCawley gave an equally fascinating display of Barber’s ability to adapt his lyric voice to the piano’s demands in the 1955 Nocturne, a tribute to John Field.
It said a lot about McCawley’s artistry that he was able to begin his recital by drawing the listener so immediately into the restrained and mysterious sound world of Janácek’s In the Mist. The Brahms variations followed, played with an unusually light and athletic touch…but nevertheless gathered momentum for the towering fugal conclusion. Chopin’s Four Impromptus, often dismissed as salon pieces and rarely played as a group, completed an uncommonly interesting programme. Each follow an original path and the sinuous modulations of the F sharp impromptu were particularly beguilingly played.
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Birmingham Post November 26th 2010
Solo Recital at Artrix, Bromsgrove
Leon McCawley is an artist of great pianistic and interpretative gifts, and one of his attractive qualities is his unassuming manner. There was nothing in his body language to suggest the enormous technical difficulties of his programme but the results were riveting.
Only a virtuoso of the highest class can hope to make a success of Brahms’ Handel Variations and that was what we heard here. The theme was laid out in the best Handelian style but thereafter all was completely Brahmsian, beautifully shaped and romantic, with well-planned contrasts between successive variations, scintillating octaves, crisp rhythms, and a wide range of tone colours and dynamics. Everything thought out so that the final fugue was a natural culmination to the classical shape of the work.
Poetic and deliciously insouciant performances of Chopin’s Four Impromptus followed, with nothing over-emphasised, Chopin’s subtlety allowed to emerge naturally rather than be underlined.
Barber’s Piano Sonata is a brilliant and bravura showpiece…watching it being performed with such élan and mastery was an amazing spectacle. After storms of applause, calm was restored with two soothing encores.
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Birmingham Post April 16th 2010
Solo Recital at Birmingham Town Hall
Two birthday boys were celebrated in BBC Radio 3’s Lunchtime Concert from one of the most thoughtful of our young pianists, Leon McCawley.Chopin (who would have been 200 this year) and Samuel Barber, halfway behind him, each contributed a Nocturne and a Sonata to this delightfully compact programme. Barber’s Op.33 Nocturne played dreamy homage to Chopin (and to Grieg), and was mellifluously delivered in McCawley’s well-pedalled tonal colourings. The Chopin C-sharp minor Nocturne, mysterious and searching, held the audience in thrall, with a marked reluctance to break the spell with applause at the end. But the biggest meat came with the sonatas. Chopin’s in B-flat minor emerged as a grisly night-ride, the famous Funeral March an interlude which sat ominously within this context.Strongly sculpted left-hand lines were one of the many strengths of McCawley’s readings.Finally the Barber Sonata (originally redolent of Prokofiev and Scriabin, but eventually finding its own semi-jazzy voice) convinced us as to its strength, busy and engaged, as Leon McCawley fearlessly unravelled its tangled textures.And another bicentenarian gate-crashed proceedings: Schumann, whose Warum? made a soothing encore even I, for once, welcomed.
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ConcertoNet.com March 2nd 2010
Hong Kong Arts Festival Solo Recital at City Hall
When every corner of the world is celebrating the bicentennial anniversary of Chopin’s birth by pianists playing all-Chopin program in their recitals, pianist Leon McCawley intriguingly chose to render works by Chopin and Barber alternatively in his recital on Monday (the later composer is also celebrating his 100th birthday on 9 March).
Mr. McCawley opened the recital by Chopin’s first published set of Mazurkas, the Op. 6…The melodies were so elegantly polished…hardly a colorful harmonic demeanor went by without Mr. McCawley bestowing sensitive touch to it. What followed was Barber’s Nocturne Op. 33. Mr. McCawley’s reading showed more emphasis on the music’s exuberance and ebullience, with a fluent tempo… This was also the case in his account of the following Chopin’s Second Sonata, to which he went on without pause. Again, the Sonata was rendered with whirlwind ebb and flow that reminded us of Argerich-like impetuousness. The scurrying runs in the second movement sometimes even sounded Lisztian. The benign middle section of the Funeral March…came across as a Nocturne with warmth and pliancy.
The second half consisted of two rarely performed piano pieces by Barber, interpolated by a Nocturne of Chopin. The lightheartedness and directness Mr. McCawley possessed seemed more trenchant in Barber’s music. The technical hurdles in the [Barber] Sonata, a showpiece of Horowitz, were also overcome with aplomb. Though Barber’s piano works are not among the mainstream concert repertoire, especially in Hong Kong, Mr. McCawley’s effort of bringing them onto the stage edifying Hong Kong concertgoers was highly commendable. Many other attendees would agree with this. Mr McCawley delivered two classic encore pieces – Schumann’s Dedication (arranged by Liszt) and Chopin’s Minute Waltz, both with a compelling sense of ebullience and vehemence.
Danny Kim-Nam Hui
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International Piano May/June 2009
Piano 2009 Manchester/ BBC Radio 3 Discovering Music Series
Leon McCawley gave a tremendous performance of Bach’s Partita No. 4 and Busoni’s transcription of the Bach Chaconne. In the Partita he took care to enunciate the character of each movement, from the Allemande to the natural lightness of the Gigue. The Chaconne bristled with different textures, and was so full of life and drama that pianist and audience were left breathless.
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The Irish Times August 21st 2007
Kilkenny Arts Festival 17th August 2007
On Friday night, pianist Leon McCawley explored the Classical and Romantic concepts of fantasia, via five works by Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin and Schumann. The precision at which he excels was not at all at odds with the improvisational freedom essential to pieces such as Beethoven’s Sonata in E flat Op 27 No 1 Quasi una fantasia and Chopin’s F minor Fantasie. McCawley’s deep understanding of the relationship between detail and large-scale design helped make his account of Schumann’s Op 17 Fantasie in C especially powerful, full of insight into the inner aspects of a composer who, according to the 19th-century critic Richard Pohl, was always writing “inside himself”.
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The Flying Inkpot August 21st 2007
Solo Recital at Chethams’s International Music Festival, Manchester
His recital began with a very clean and crystal clear reading of Mozart’s Fantasia in C minor K475 which sounded so austere to be almost modern. Beethoven’s Sonata quasi una fantasia in E flat major Op. 27 No.1…shone brightly like the nascent morning sun. The hymn tune of the slow movement was beautifully carved out and on its return amid the final movement’s busy country-dance, it appeared with the gratefulness of a long lost friend.
McCawley’s piece de resistance was Schumann’s Fantasy in C major Op. 17. His performance had everything- passion, nostalgia (especially in the Beethoven quotation), lots of technique to burn, and a gorgeous luminous sound, evident in the rapturous first movement. The march of the League of David went forth unimpeded and those horrendous octave leaps at the end posed little trouble. His sense of rubato was excellent in the slow and ruminating finale, bringing a slow but sure boil to the glorious climax- not once but twice. A more spiritual close to the great work could not have been desired.
His two encores were both by Schumann, a perfectly conceived Widmung (in Liszt’s transcription) and the vertigo-inducing Traumeswirren (from Fantasiestucke Op. 12). Ronald Stevenson said he had not witnessed such pianism for fifty years, since the days of Mark Hambourg, Who am I to question that assessment?
Chang Tou Liang
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Daily Telegraph May 25th 2007
Brighton Festival May 21st 2007
Leon McCawley gave an absorbing piano recital focusing on fantasies, with Mozart’s C minor K475 coupled with Schumann’s Drei Phantasiestücke Op 111, Chopin’s F minor Fantasie Op 49 and Beethoven’s E flat Sonata Op 27 No 1, Quasi una fantasia.
With his characteristic poise and concentration, McCawley’s playing reflected and enhanced the spontaneous invention of these pieces, one idea leading naturally to another, but with a shapeliness of structure and a dynamism of interpretation that gave the discourse both coherence and eloquence of expression.
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New York Times October 10th 2006
The Frick Collection, New York
The room’s reverberant acoustics highlighted the eloquently full-blooded approach of Leon McCawley, the 33-year-old British Pianist, Curtis graduate and multiple competition laureate, who made his New York recital debut on Sunday at the Frick.
Mr. McCawley began his program with a spirited and almost romantic reading of Mozart’s Sonata in D (K. 311) with long expressive phrases and a liberal use of rubato. [In Schubert’s Sonata in A minor], Mr McCawley…emphasised the harmonic shifts and contrasting moods in a lyrical, heartfelt performance.
After intermission Mr McCawley spoke briefly about Hans Gál-an Austrian Jewish composer whom he has championed and recorded. Mr. Gál’s Suite for Piano (1924) is an instantly appealing work … Mr. McCawley deftly contrasted the varied textures and harmonies.
Mr McCawley concluded his program with Rachmaninoff: first a poetic and mystical account of the Étude-Tableaux (Op. 39, Nos. 2 and 8), followed by a probing and virtuosic reading of Variations on a Theme of Corelli. Mr McCawley explored the variations on the majestic theme, ranging from languid to powerful, with sensitivity and style. The listener, meanwhile, was enveloped in an acoustical cocoon of bright, passionate sound.
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South Florida Sun-Sentinel May 17 2005
Miami International Piano Festival May 14 2005
McCawley’s rare artistry lifts Miami Piano Festival
English pianist Leon McCawley achieved international prominence in 1993 when he won first prize in the Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna and second prize at the Leeds Competition. He has appeared as a soloist with orchestras throughout England, and with the Dallas and Minnesota orchestras in the U.S.
On Saturday the Miami International Piano Festival afforded local audiences the opportunity of assessing this artist at the Lincoln Theatre in Miami Beach. McCawley’s appearance as part of the Discovery Series conjured up memories of the late pianist Clifford Curzon. Instead of trying to knock us over the head with his admirable technique, McCawley — like Curzon — concentrated on the musical values of his program and accomplished what many pianists strive for but few have the musicianship to achieve.
Mozart was represented by both his Fantasy in C minor, K. 475, and his Sonata K. 457 in the same key. Each was lovingly phrased and presented a range of dynamics that demonstrated McCawley’s total comfort with the music.
The 13 childhood memories that inspired Schumann’s beloved Kinderscenen have a refined lyricism, and here McCawley’s attention to phrasing made for a ravishing experience. Even in the faster passages his control held things fully in check, and his immaculate pedaling enabled the music to speak without blurring.
Four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti were well chosen and deftly contrasted. McCawley’s freshness and crispness of execution helped to erase any thoughts of the harpsichord for which they were originally composed.
If without the heart-on-sleeve lyricism typical of Rachmaninoff, his rarely performed Variations on a Theme of Corelli present plenty of opportunity for pianists to flex their muscles. McCawley rose to the challenge and delivered torrents of sound to contrast with the refinement of the rest of his program. Yet nothing was pushed, and nothing fell below the high threshold of taste and good judgment.
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South Florida Entertainment News and Views May 17 2005
Miami International Piano Festival May 14 2005
England’s Leon McCawley took center stage on May 14 and offered an evening of sensitive, deeply felt music making. McCawley’s patrician musicianship and elegant pianism were indeed special. The strong profile and florid musical line that he brought to Mozart’s Fantasy in C Minor was mesmerizing. In Schumann’s lovely Kinderscenen, McCawley displayed supple lyricism and delicately sculpted phrasing. McCawley played Mozart’s Sonata in C Minor with brisk, classical precision. The Adagio sang from his keyboard like a finely spun operatic aria.
McCawley’s traversal of four sonatas by Domenico Scarlatti pulsated with rhythmic life. His lithe phrasing, idiomatic fluency and pianistic brilliance made this thrice familiar music sound new and vibrant. In Rachmaninoff’s awesome Variations on a Theme of Corelli, McCawley commanded fervent power and wonderful romantic coloration. Here was artistry of the highest order. McCawley is a great and unique musician!
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Daily Telegraph 7 May 2005
Classical: The Choice (Preview to QEH recital)
Leon McCawley is a pianist for whom the word “eloquent” could have been coined, combing as he does a wonderful sense of style with a discreetly telling manner of musical interpretation.
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Independent 3 May 2005
Preview of Queen Elizabeth Hall solo recital
There are many reasons for attending Leon McCawley’s recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday- quite apart from the fact that he’s the only Brit in the South Bank International Piano Series. Those who have heard him in concert- and he’s starting to loom large in the pianistic firmament- will know what dependable pleasures he purveys; those who have heard his Schumann recordings on the Avie label will be familiar with his uniquely measured musicality. He’s only 31, but his playing has the mature wisom of a man twice his age…
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