Leslie Howard

Balakirev
Scherzo No.2 in B flat minor
Borodin
Petite Suite [incorporating Scherzo in A flat]
Glazunov
Piano Sonata No.1 in B flat minor, Op.74
Rachmaninov
Three Pieces [Piece in D minor; Oriental Sketch; Fragments]
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36 [Original 1913 version]

Leslie Howard (piano)


Reviewed by: Colin Clarke

Reviewed: 24 April, 2007
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

Leslie Howard is a pianist endowed with a truly questing mentality. How else could he have put down the monumental 97-disc Hyperion Liszt conspectus? Or, for that matter, constructed a programme such as this – full of discovery and delight?

B flat minor hung heavily at this Wigmore Hall recital, with all three sonatas sharing this key. But there was not a trace of monotony. Howard gave each work its own intrinsic character to deliver a varied and supremely satisfying evening. His belief in these pieces shone through his playing, resulting in a never less than stimulating experienceBalakirev’s Second Scherzo is hardly known (there are only a handful of recordings). Howard made us wonder how this could be so. The deep, sonorous flourishes of the opening led to a typical Russian melody, projected here perfectly without a trace of undue highlighting. The Wigmore acoustic is tricky for pianists, and it would seem Howard judges it better than most. A telling single line just before the work’s close was one of the more notable moments.

The Borodin needs a small amount of explanation. Howard followed the French edition in including the A flat Scherzo. Further, he followed Glazunov’s example (when the latter orchestrated the work) and inserted the ‘Nocturne’ as a trio section. It worked perfectly, Howard demonstrating his expert ear for sonority throughout. The pair of ‘Mazurkas’ that make up the third and fourth numbers were most appealing; only the ‘Rêverie’ seemed to wonder aimlessly. The flickering, helter-skelter ‘Scherzo’ with its flickering ‘Nocturne’ effectively destroyed all doubts, though.

Glazunov’s First Sonata is dedicated to Rimsky-Korsakov’s wife and was premiered by Siloti. It is a smouldering work from the pen of a master who still has to receive his full due. Glazunov’s sonatas were written just before his Seventh Symphony, when the composer was at a creative apex. Howard pedalled wonderfully in the first movement, exhibiting a similarly sensitive way with phrasing. Did he deliberately highlight the kinship of some passages to Rachmaninov? Only one passage stood out for any sort of qualified comment – a passage that in Howard’s hands sounded as if Glazunov was over-relying on the use of sequence (Stephen Coombs on his Hyperion recording avoids this). The lovely decorations of the Andante gave way to the champagne glitter of the finale (so technically difficult it is no wonder this piece is not played more often!).

An all-Rachmaninov second half pitted three little-known pieces from 1917 against the mighty Second Sonata, rightly restored to its Original Version. The first of the Pieces, an Andante con moto, is surprisingly Scriabinesque, while the second is surely the closest Rachmaninov’s famously serious face got to smiling. The final piece, imply called ‘Fragments’, seemed remarkably similar to the E minor Prelude from Opus 32 (interestingly, one of Howard’s encores was the G sharp minor Prelude from that opus).

Interesting that when Hélène Grimaud presented the Second Sonata in London (Royal Festival Hall, February 2005) and on her linked release (DG 477 5325) she felt it necessary to present a hybrid version – presumably to save Rachmaninov from his own bombast. Howard found the solution in the original score itself. His scaling was perfect – the opening gestures were striking but not exaggerated. By fore-grounding Rachmaninov’s exploratory stance (and also making the work’s kinship with the 1917 pieces clear), Howard seemed to make it all fall into place. Rachmaninov’s famous allusions to bells were clear and sonorous; the concentration in the Lento was such that one could cut the atmosphere with a knife. Howard even found a partner for the finale in Ravel’s La valse in his sheer exhilaration. Magnificent!

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