Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Somm release new recordings from Leon McCawley of Rachmaninov’s complete preludes that are amongst the finest available

Leon McCawley was 1st Prize winner in the International Beethoven Piano Competition in Vienna and 2nd Prize winner at the Leeds International Piano Competition, both in 1993. He studied with Heather Slade-Lipkin at Chetham’s School of Music, Manchester before continuing his studies with Eleanor Sokoloff at the Curtis Institute of Music, Philadelphia, USA. He also worked closely with Nina Milkina in London. Leon McCawley is currently professor of piano at London's Royal College of Music.

McCawley’s successful career as a concerto soloist has seen him perform with many of the leading British orchestras including the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, Philharmonia, BBC Philharmonic, Bournemouth Symphony, City of Birmingham Symphony and Royal Northern Sinfonia. He has performed several times at BBC Proms. Abroad he has worked with orchestras such as the Adelaide Symphony, Cincinnati Symphony, Dallas Symphony, Malaysian Philharmonic, Minnesota Orchestra, Netherlands Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, RTÉ Concert and National Symphony Orchestras, St. Petersburg Symphony and Vienna Symphony, working with conductors such as Mark Elder, Daniele Gatti, Andrew Litton, Kurt Masur, Gianandrea Noseda, Sakari Oramo and Simon Rattle.

In April 2011 he performed the complete Mozart Piano Sonatas over one weekend at King’s Place, London with other notable recitals in past seasons including the London Piano Series at Wigmore Hall, the International Piano Series at London’s Southbank Centre, Philharmonie and Konzerthaus in Berlin, Frick Collection and Lincoln Center New York, Hong Kong Arts Festival, Prague Rudolfinum and the Phillips Collection, Washington DC.

McCawley’s discography includes Barber Piano Music (EMI Classics); Schumann Piano Music (Avie Records) selected as Editor's Choice in Gramophone; The Complete Piano Works of Hans Gal (Avie), also a Gramophone Editor's Choice; The Complete Mozart Piano Sonatas (Avie) awarded a Diapason d'Or; Chopin Piano Music (Somm Recordings); a new recording of Barber Piano Music (Somm), awarded Critic's Choice in Gramophone in November 2011; Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy with Royal Philharmonic and City of London Choir conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton (Naxos); Brahms Piano Music (Somm), selected as Classic FM CD of the Week in July 2012; and Schumann Piano Music (Somm).

Leon McCawley’s fifth disc for Somm Recordings  of Rachmaninov’s Complete Preludes has just been released.


McCawley opens his new disc with Rachmaninov’s most famous prelude, the Prelude No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 3 from 5 Morceaux de fantasie (1892). After drawing our immediate attention in the opening bars, he brings a beautifully poised performance with great care of tempi and is not afraid to let go with some truly wonderful playing in the fast, rhythmic, virtuosic passages bringing a fine sense of scale.

With the Preludes, Op.23, all but one of which were composed in 1903, McCawley brings a lovely sense of forward pushing tension to No. 1 in F sharp minor, a subtle racketing up of the drama together with the loveliest of quieter, poetic moments. The stormy Prelude No. 2 in B flat major brings some particularly fine, beautifully phrased and articulated playing as well as a meltingly lovely central section. McCawley’s touch is particularly silken towards the coda with a fine subtle rhythmic spring to the music.

He gives us a nicely sprung Prelude No. 3 in D minor played with moments of fine restraint with some beautifully shaped passages before an exquisitely drawn No. 4 in D major with so many shades of subtle colouring as McCawley slowly reveals Rachmaninov’s lovely theme. His phrasing and gentle, subtle rubato are very fine with, towards the end, another meltingly beautiful moment exquisitely played.

McCawley’s fine rhythmic playing is to the fore in No. 5 in G minor (1901) with moments of fine bravura whilst revealing the many subtleties, particularly in the second subject, beautifully and sensitivity done with a lovely restraint. There is a beautifully expansive No. 6 in E flat major which has an intimate quality, as though the composer is speaking quietly to an intimate gathering; quite lovely.

McCawley’s ability to reveal the gentle subtleties in Rachmaninov’s music can be heard in No. 7 in C minor, again beautifully coloured and phrased with this pianist’s lovely subtle rubato and a finely controlled climax centrally. No. 8 in A flat major receives a sparkling, crisp and rhythmically bubbling performance, beautifully articulated with this pianist’s ability to suddenly reveal some of this composer’s most beautifully turned phrases.

This pianist finds so much in the odd little Prelude No. 9 in E flat minor allowing it to have a natural flow right through the climax to its fine coda. McCawley’s performance of the Prelude No. 10 in G flat major makes a glorious conclusion to this set, again finely phrased, with a natural ebb and flow picking up on so many lovely subtle moments.

Rachmaninov’s Preludes, Op.32 date from 1910. Leon McCawley finds all the subtle mood changes of the Prelude No. 1 in C major whilst bringing a lively gentle rhythmic quality to No. 2 in B flat major  with more fine subtleties, rising through some fine passages before a lovely coda.

McCawley’s superb control of dynamics brings much to No. 3 in E major, bringing a joy and occasionally a hint of Russian bells. No. 4 in E minor is beautifully phrased allowing the music to breathe with carefully wrought dynamics as well as a lovely reflective passage where McCawley finds so much poetry and imagination. There is a terrific climax before the fine coda. This pianist’s lovely delicate touch brings fine rippling phrases to No. 5 in G major again with such poetic sensibility, quite exquisite, before the simple little coda.

There is a wonderfully controlled Prelude No. 6 in F minor before a beautifully judged Prelude No. 7 in F major where McCawley reveals the lovely little rhythmic pulse that runs through this piece, with so many fine subtleties. Prelude No. 8 in A minor brings some phenomenally fine playing of great intricacy and fluency, once again beautifully controlled and phrased.

Prelude No. 9 in A major has a lovely expansive flow, very fine rubato and a fine poetic vision, another exquisite performance whilst No. 10 in B minor, one of Rachmaninov’s loveliest preludes, is beautifully presented with superb phrasing, and a real poetic vision. It rises full of authority and stature before falling back to lead gently through moments of subtly nuanced emotion with McCawley’s timing perfectly judged, particularly in those little pauses.

There is more fine playing in the Prelude No. 11 in B major, wonderfully paced, bringing out all of Rachmaninov’s fleeting melodic invention. No. 12 in G sharp minor has such a light shimmering touch, finely controlled with exquisite rubato and a delightful coda whereas the final Prelude, No. 13 in D flat major, opens with a melancholy eloquence with McCawley’s perfectly judged tempo, subtly allowing Rachmaninov’s little theme to take off, rising to an especially fine, broad, dynamic passage before leading through the most lovely of phrases to a very fine coda.

Leon McCawley is a real poet of the keyboard in these performances that are alive to Rachmaninov’s wonderful melodic invention.  He receives an excellent recording made at Champs Hill, Pulborough, West Sussex, England with a fine sense of space and detail. There are particularly good booklet notes from Robert Matthew-Walker.

Anyone wishing to acquire a recording of Rachmaninov complete preludes is spoilt for choice with so many fine recordings available. Anyone choosing this new release can be sure that it is amongst the finest. 

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