Leslie Howard – Russian Sonatas

Piano Sonata in G, Op.37 (Grande Sonate)
Piano Sonata No.2 in E minor, Op.75
Piano Sonata No.1 in D minor, Op.28

Leslie Howard (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 25 October, 2005
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

To mark the thirtieth anniversary of his first recital at the Wigmore Hall, Leslie Howard has put together a trio of celebratory concerts. The second in the series concentrated exclusively on Russian sonatas, all three hardly cornerstones of the repertoire.

The real rarity was Glazunov’s Second Sonata, recorded by Howard some six years ago as part of a Pearl collection devoted to the composer. Written in 1901, Glazunov’s sonata was easily the most economical piece of this recital. Under Howard’s guidance it spun an attractive group of melodies, the second principal theme of the opening Moderato played with obvious affection. The scherzo, described by Howard as “treacherous”, fared well. But the revelation was the finale, a challenging fugue given ample space by the pianist, even if some of the dotted rhythms were inconsistent.

Unfortunately this same problem cast a greater shadow on Howard’s Tchaikovsky. The ‘Grand Sonata’ is the biggest of his three works designates as sonatas, but on this occasion the pianist seemed content just to get through the piece, missing several opportunities to expand on dynamic contrasts or dramatic pauses, nor resting for long enough between first and second movements. The first movement’s call to arms was lost in the haze of the sustaining pedal, although Howard regained some kudos in the more delicate Andante, bringing out a similarity with Chopin’s E minor Prelude. The fiendish scherzo was impressive for his spidery figurations, but without dispelling charges of him also being routine. The finale rushed past, its second theme of repeated chords hurried. This work is oft-derided by critics, but it also has an appeal that was sadly overlooked on this occasion.

Not so in the Rachmaninov, for it seemed Leslie Howard had found an extra gear during the interval. An intently focussed first movement made much of the Faustian drama used as a programme for the piece, and a concentrated second theme centred on the ‘Dies Irae’ was perfectly paced. Of Rachmaninov’s two piano sonatas the First suffers in comparison to the Second, which has become something of a showpiece for up-and-coming virtuosos. However No.1 is the harder work to bring off successfully, being structurally complex, the three movements taking Goethe’s Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles for inspiration. Howard’s taut account of first movement swept any doubts aside, rubato intelligently used, the reappearance of the chant-like theme leaving the pianist motionless at the end.

The relative tranquillity of the Lento made sense too, particularly with Howard’s new-found attention to detail, but all too soon we were back in the darkness of D minor for the finale. Low-register rumblings threatened to obscure the melodic material but Howard was soon back on track, observing well the contrast between lyrical and monotonic, through to a barnstorming close of considerable virtuosity. It was the best performance of an interesting recital.

  • Leslie Howard returns to the Wigmore Hall on 8 November
  • Wigmore Hall

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