Leslie Howard at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven, Rachmaninov & Liszt

Fifteen Variations and Fugue in E flat, Op.35 (Eroica)
Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op.28
Phantasiestück über Motiven aus Rienzi von R. Wagner: “Santo spirito cavaliere”, S439
Aïda di G. Verdi – Danza sacra and Duetto finale, S436
Les adieux – Rêverie sur un motif de l’opéra de Ch. Gounod Rómeo et Juliette, S409
Fantasie über Themen aus Mozarts Figaro und Don Giovanni, S697

Leslie Howard (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 7 October, 2012
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Leslie HowardThis attractive mix of repertoire leapt out of the listings: the daring of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Variations, the Faustian inspiration of Rachmaninov’s First Piano Sonata, and a selection of Liszt’s intriguing operatic paraphrases. Playing three of his favourite composers, Leslie Howard was in his element.

However famous Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ tune is (especially so in the eponymous Symphony and not forgetting its appearance in the score for The Creatures of Prometheus ballet), its basis for this magnificent set of Variations for piano is perhaps not in such general view. Howard opened with easeful command, cueing the Theme which spawns a gamut of moods, from charm to hedonism. It was good to hear a ‘modern’ account of this somewhat elusive work that matched great versions of yesteryear (such as by Annie Fischer and Emil Gilels, both of whom left us superb recordings); and if Howard was perhaps too logical as he traversed the youthful Beethoven’s unpredictable commentaries, he made much of repeated notes and trills and was resolute with the fiery Fugue.

There followed a revelatory performance of Rachmaninov’s D minor Piano Sonata (1907, “inspired by a reading of Goethe’s Faust”). The first movement is of Faust himself, dark, moody and soulful in its introduction, followed by a torrent of notes, deep in expression as well as climbing mountains, thrilling us at the highest peaks. For Gretchen, the second movement is lyrically sensitive; Howard unfolded it as a long-lined portrait. The finale is literally devilish as Mephistopheles appears, requiring heroics from the pianist, gratefully met by Howard, never forcing the pace or coarsening the sound – indeed the Steinway remained rich and wholesome as Howard drove for the victorious if minor-key finishing post ensuring, certainly for this listener, that this previously impenetrable work emerged as paved with gold.

Leslie Howard’s communing with Liszt the man and the composer has been the stuff of legends for several decades resulting in 100-plus compact discs for Hyperion. For forty-five minutes, Howard gave us an uninterrupted sequence of Liszt’s operatic paraphrases in performances of scholarly bravura and absorbing conviction. Most of the motifs used from Rienzi are in Wagner’s Overture (possibly the only bit of the opera that most of us know), whether striding or indelibly hymnal, concluding with a thunderous coda and fistfuls of notes. The sultry melody from Verdi’s Aïda enjoyed much embellishment, while the Gounod was attractively chaste before reaching an intense climax – Liszt made this music as naturally belonging to the piano. With the Fantasy on Figaro and Don Giovanni, we got as close as possible to Liszt’s intentions, for he did not fully complete the manuscript and never got the work ready for publication. Busoni’s edition suppresses much of Liszt’s writing. Leslie Howard has added transitional bars and an ending. It was fascinating to hear familiar Mozart arias in new harmonies and slants, the music ranging from insouciance to rip-roaring, Howard as persuasive and as brilliant as required.

Leslie Howard’s generous programme, liberally demanding on any pianist, allowed his intellect and fingers to bequeath many delights and insights to compel the audience. As a sweet encore Howard offered a stylish and affectionate improvisation on Jerome Kern’s ‘All the things you are’ from the musical Very Warm for May. In October in the Wigmore Hall, Leslie Howard was hot!

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