Leslie Howard at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven & Liszt

Piano Sonata in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)
Années de Pèlerinage – Troisième année

Leslie Howard (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 8 November, 2009
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Leslie HowardLeslie Howard came to fame when he recorded the complete piano works of Liszt for Hyperion. This Wigmore Hall matinee was certainly heavyweight, and all credit to Howard for playing the least-well-known of the three books of Liszt’s sublime Années de Pèlerinage. However to start the concert with Beethoven’s ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata was surely a mistake. This is stupendous music and it is really impossible to follow the last movement’s fugue – even with late Liszt.

Howard’s approach to the Beethoven was certainly direct and the sound he produced very distinctive, with a crystalline, almost glacial treble and a stark bass. The first movement was fast and didactic, with a barely perceptible slowing for the second subject and he eschewed the exposition repeat. (See footnote* – Ed.) Unfortunately there was also a lack of dynamic variation and in the numerous cross-hand passages the rhythm was lost and untidiness crept in. As a result the development and coda were loud but underpowered. In the scherzo there was an element of stiffness, the dazzling semiquaver run was uneven and the trio was too loud.

The tempo for the Adagio sostenuto was reasonably slow and the tempo variations minimal. But there was no real sense of spirituality and Howard seemed to be caught within the bar-lines. There was no give and take to the phrasing and far too little dynamic nuancing, everything played at piano and little else. In the Largo transition to the last movement the tempo was slow, suddenly for a few bars Howard relaxed, the tone softened, there was even rubato and then he was off like an express train. I don’t think I have ever heard this fugue in three voices played so quickly. This was power pianism par excellence. However a fugue is a set of variations and, from the greatest of all composers, a thing of unparalleled and disturbing originality: the various lines and rhythmic patterns should be heard in all their angularity and sheer bloody-mindedness! Howard conveyed none of this, if ever there was an example of a performance being “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” then this was it.

But after the interval we entered a different world. Liszt’s late piano music was years ahead of its time and suddenly Howard’s tone softened, there was a singing quality to the playing, natural rubato and the dynamics varied from pppp to fff. The tolling bass of the first of the ‘Villa d’Este’ pieces was very dark and in the second such piece the arpeggios that lead to the outline of a theme (so typical of late Liszt) were beautifully voiced. ‘Les jeux d’eaux à la Villa d’este’ is probably the most famous of the Third Year and its shimmering surface was brilliantly evoked via translucent and gentle tone; while the bass at the beginning of ‘Sunt lacrymae’ was massively powerful. Howard also – quite rightly – saw the last three pieces as an almost continuous haunted threnody. He captured much of their tortured spirituality and the last page was presented as a series of huge but totally controlled chords.

And yet this wasn’t quite great Liszt playing. Occasionally the rhythmic squareness that marred the ‘Hammerklavier’ became evident and the glorious climax of ‘Les Jeux d’eaux’ didn’t convey a sense of release and resolution. Everything was very clean and controlled, but the sense of struggle that say Lazar Berman and Alfred Brendel found in this music was only partially conveyed.

There was one encore, Valse Oubliée No.3. Here Howard did produce great playing; everything came together and he created a veritable and very beautiful wash of shimmering impressionistic sound.

  • *Leslie Howard has contacted Classical Source to inform that he did play the exposition repeat in the first movement of the Hammerklavier Sonata. Classical Source apologises to Mr Howard for inaccurate reporting and is pleased to put the record straight

  • Wigmore Hall

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