United Kingdom Leslie Howard: All-Liszt 75th Birthday Recital: Wigmore Hall, London, 18.4.2023. (CC)
Liszt – Ballade No.1 in D flat, S170 (1845-48); Ballade No.2 in B minor, S171 (1853); Four Valses oubliées, S215 (1881-85); Petite Valse, S695e (before 1884); Der Todesengel, S190a (1871); Andante religioso, S512a (possibly around 1856); Variations on ‘Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen’, S180 (1862); Hungarian Rhapsodies: Nos. 16-19
There is little doubt that UK resident, Australian pianist Leslie Howard’s lasting legacy will be his stunning complete Liszt solo piano music on the Hyperion label. Celebrating his 75th birthday, this was a typically meticulously programmed evening. While we did enjoy pyrotechnics, particularly in the Hungarian Rhapsodies, we also met the depth of late Liszt.
The two Ballades, surely, should enjoy equal currency to Chopin’s essays in this genre. The first of Liszt’s Ballades is the lesser known of the two but is initially full of aching lyricism before a more active, more capricious section in which Howard seemed to make reference to the Liszt of the Mephisto Waltzes. The left-hand statement of the lyrical theme garlanded by right-hand filigree was a moment of purest beauty under Howard’s hands. Most importantly, Howard morphed from one form of discourse to another like a Lisztian shapeshifter. The Second Ballade is an utterly remarkable work. Its opening takes us to the darkest forests in Liszt’s mind. Howard’s reading was certainly dark, if not the darkest (that accolade surely goes to Ervin Nyiregyházi); the contrast to the first Ballade was stark indeed, the harmonies of Liszt’s magical chord progressions fully honoured. Hearing the octave fanfares so well-articulated, and of perfect tone, heralded a faster section of supreme command (and, indeed, projection – Howard judged the Wigmore Hall’s tricky acoustic brilliantly).
Even more elusive are the four Valses oubliées: pure late Liszt, eschewing overt virtuosity, exploring new harmonic terrain (the fourth was not published until 1954). The first was characterised by its fragility, a sort of fractured Mephisto, before entering into a shadowy waltz; the extreme staccato of the opening of the second gave us the epitome of grotesquerie (a sort of twisted Schumann, at times). The strange call and response that opens the third Valse, a sort of left-hand horn call met by right-hand, rather more quixotic quaver – a sort of Operon’s horn and Titania’s riposte – found Howard creating pure magic. A tolling left–hand covered by right-hand arpeggiations was another moment of wonder; the fourth and final Valse starts off like Liszt’s equivalent to Chopin’s ‘Minute Waltz’ before moving, for the first time, into virtuoso territory. A nice idea to prolong the waltz sequence with the Petite Valse, S 695a,’Nachspiel zu den drei vergessenen Walzer’. There is a Tristan-esque longing to the octave lines of this waltz (beautifully done by Howard); it morphed into the ‘miniature poem’ (Howard’s words, in the programme note) Der Todesengel (Death’s Angel), unearthed by Minkyu Kim, Leslie Howard’s collaborator on the forthcoming Liszt Thematic Catalogue (incidentally, there is a YouTube video of Kim playing this piece in Utrecht). Dark chords are balanced by a radiant melody such as only could have come from Liszt’s pen.
The second part of the recital pitted one rarity alongside more familiar fare. The Andante religioso heard here is not the organ piece played on a piano, although Howard refers to the two pieces as ‘broadly similar’. This one was discovered at the University of California at Los Angeles and is subtitled ‘Ce qu’on entend sur la montagne (Sinfonische Dichtung)’; material is quoted from Liszt’s Symphonic Poem No.1, S95. As Howard says, ‘there is no account of any public performance before now’; the piece certainly lives up to its ‘religioso’ aspect – it is positively reverential.
The Variations on Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen is a major slab of Liszt. The theme is taken from Bach’s cantata, BWV 12 (which also reappeared in the ‘Crucifixus’ of Bach’s Mass in B minor). Inspired by the death of the composer’s daughter Blondine at the tragically early age of 26, the piece comprises Introduction – Theme – Variations – Recitative – Variations – Chorale (this last from Bach’s cantata, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan,) plus coda. It was Howard’s grasp of the work’s structural trajectory, and therefore his natural sense of growth, which impressed over any prestidigitation (one almost takes that for granted with this pianist). Granitic sounds, textures delineated with the purest of fingerwork, it was all here. Throughout, Howard sits almost immobile – everything is concentrated through his fingers. A magnificent achievement, and arguably the true highlight of the evening.
Four Hungarian Rhapsodies acted as a remarkable confirmation, if confirmation were needed, of Howard’s achievement. It was the pining nature of some of the melodic material of No.16 in A minor that really stuck in the mind. Fabulous trills, too. The tolling demeanour of No.17 in D minor’s opening announced a Hungarian Rhapsody more allied to the late works than to frothy legerdemain: Howard doesn’t do insubstantial. The piece is unique in the Hungarian Rhapsodies as it is monothematic. Howard seemed to positively relish the very specifically Hungarian harmonies of No.18 (F-sharp minor – scurrying passagework, jaw-droppingly later on even) before the final No.19 in D minor, a work of niggling obsession. With accents perfectly judged, this was a masterclass in Liszt playing – as, come to think of it, was the entire recital.
No encore, but after four Hungarian Rhapsodies in a row, and the Liszt/Bach variations, who would?
A simply superb recital – stimulating fare, delivered via the hands of a Master.