Sydenham International Music Festival – Leslie Howard

Piano Sonata in C, Op.53 (Waldstein)
Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, S154
Scherzo und Marsch, S177
Three Pieces [Andante ma non troppo; Oriental Sketch; Fragments]
Piano Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.36 [original 1913 version]

Leslie Howard (piano)

Reviewed by: Ben Hogwood

Reviewed: 20 May, 2007
Venue: St Bartholemew's Church, Sydenham, South-East London

The Sydenham International Music Festival is in its ninth season, and having acquired the ‘international’ tag is now seeking to broaden its outreach. The month-long series of concerts, most at weekends, sees Sunday night programmes from the Endellion String Quartet and the St Bartholemew Festival Orchestra, resident of the wonderful church of the same name that constitutes the Festival’s headquarters.

Leslie Howard was here making his third consecutive Festival appearance, playing a Fazioli in a most rewarding acoustic. The piano offered a crisp, clean sound ideally suited to the definition required in the opening figurations of the ‘Waldstein’. Howard took this at quite a lick initially, and suffered a few choppy moments in the first movement’s development section, but his playing was sensitive throughout, especially in the serene calm he brought to the brief but poignant Adagio. The transition to the finale was gripping, and found the pianist adopting a slower tempo for the ensuing Rondo, giving him plenty of room to up the tempo for the flight of the prestissimo coda. Occasionally his fortissimo was a touch too cutting in delivery, but the sense of structure was keen throughout.

Two Liszt works followed. Harmonies poétiques et religieuses, distinct from the cycle of that name, is a wildly daring piece in form and metre. Howard revealed its improvisatory qualities, the music never quite settling, the ending unresolved. Far more emphatic was the devilishly difficult Scherzo und Marsch, seemingly unplayable to any of the pianists Liszt had at his disposal. Howard applied himself heroically in the diabolic scherzo theme, drawing sharp parallels with Mahler as the ominous March took hold, before a furious coda united both thematic groups.

Howard’s love of Russian Romanticism took hold after the interval, with Rachmaninov’s unpublished trio grouped in searching performances. These lead immediately into the Original Version of the Second Sonata, a concert hall regular. This is presumably due to its virtuosic demands, which Howard made light of in the opening flourish, though he was dogged by a high pitched sound throughout, which seemed to be a someone’s hearing aid. Thankfully the music won through, with the slow movement akin to an impromptu in its restless nature, until Howard applied immaculate phrasing to the long melody. The finale was especially well defined due to a hugely impressive, technically flawless finish.

The pianist offered two scherzos as generous encores – a flighty but charming movement by Borodin, and a whirlwind piece from Balakirev, completing an extremely well-received programme.

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