One of the greatest living pianists. Famous for interpretations and
recordings of Liszt and Rachmaninoff.
“He should look back with the strongest sense of pride, fulfilment
and accomplishment” (Gramophone Magazine)
Review of concert at Wigmore Hall September 2021
If there is a pianist alive who knows Liszt’s piano music more thoroughly, intimately and directly than Leslie Howard I would like to meet him—or her—but I doubt that there is anyone on the planet who does. His 99-disc complete survey of the Hungarian composer’s piano music (for Hyperion) is one of the great monuments of the recording age, testimony to his deep understanding of Liszt’s music. That understanding was displayed on vivid detail in his much-anticipated recital at the Wigmore Hall on July 25.
In his live recitals as well as on disc Howard has always been an intelligent programme builder and this was no exception. Two travel-based works—Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy (1822) and Liszt’s Lyon, the first of his early cycle Album d’un voyageur (1837-8)—led on to three pieces within Liszt’s output as different from each other as could be imagined. First came the initial version (S154; 1833-4) of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, expanded over a decade later as merely the fourth piece in a larger cycle of the same name. (The movement was renamed Pensée des morts and much of the character implied in that later title is evident in the music’s original flow.) This was followed by the Mephisto Waltz No 2, from Liszt’s final decade, and the programme completed with a masterly rendition of the 2 Légendes, S175, of 1862-3: St François d’Assise: la predication aux oiseaux and St François de Paule: marchant sur les flots.
Throughout the programme, Howard’s musical intelligence was at work but, like his not inconsiderable virtuosity, unobtrusively to highlight the genius of Schubert and Liszt. Howard is one of the more undemonstrative of pianists: no flashy throwing up of hands from the keyboard, or exaggerated body language trying to further interpret the music for the audience as some younger executants are apt to do. Howard understands that his hands on the keyboard do the talking, and their eloquence spoke volumes throughout, especially in the quieter, lyrical passages, such as the opening and close of Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, or the wonderful articulation of the song theme in the Wanderer Fantasy. It is shocking to think its advanced harmonies were conceived just six years after Beethoven’s death. In St François d’Assise: la predication aux oiseaux, the shimmering opening almost out-Debussyed Debussy with its foretaste of impressionism. Howard’s unfussy pianism laid these out for the ear with perfect clarity.
There is plenty of power in Howard’s expressive arsenal, too, and was put to good use. The stormy central section of Lyon was riveting, not least with the wide separation of hands on key points, or in Liszt’s turbulent depiction of St Francis of Paola’s miraculous crossing of the Strait of Messina. Howard’s stentorian voicing of the subjects in the closing section of the Wanderer was enormously impressive, too, despite the thicker piano writing. Howard did seem a little stiff right at the start of the Schubert but quickly settled into the task. Yet it was Liszt who was the star of the show, not least the mercurial Mephisto Waltz No 2, where power and lyricism were synthesized in its swirling motion. This work is as much a tone poem about the nature of the dance as is Ravel’s La valse of four decades later. The ineluctably achieved, thunderous close was perfectly placed.
©Musical Opinion September 2021 – Guy Rickards
Liszt Première Ballade, S170
Liszt Deuxième Ballade, S171
Liszt Quatre Valses oubliées, S215 et Petite Valse, S695e
Der Todesengel, S190a
Andante religioso, S512a
Variationen über das Motiv von J S Bach: ‘Weinen, Klagen’, S180
Rapsodies hongroises XVI, XVII, XVIII & XIX, S244/16-19
Fundraising for Cranleigh Arts, Charity no 284186