Tuesday, May 18, 2023

Wigmore Hall, London

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

The pianist and musicologist Leslie Howard is a tireless guardian of the Liszt flame, with the complete piano works, some 100 Hyperion CDs, being of formidable sleuthing scholarship, among his many achievements. Anticipating his seventy-fifth birthday (April 29) he gave this Liszt recital – with works barely known, never performed in public, and incomplete. The best-known pieces were probably the moody Ballade No.2 and the Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen Variations, which also has an organ version. The four Valses oubliées, late pieces, suggested all sorts of possibilities both choreographic and nostalgic – they are all in major keys but so adventurous harmonically you might not notice, and Howard closed with four Hungarian Rhapsodies (Nos 16-19).

In the absence of a blockbuster – the B-minor Sonata, for example – Howard’s choice did remind you how variable this remarkable composer could be, where you become more aware of the need for pianistic effects and gestures than of the notes themselves. If Chopin was the poet of the keyboard, then Liszt was the actor-manager who bestrode the keys as a stage, and that was something Howard didn’t always communicate. Fighter pilots were said to wear their Spitfires rather than merely fly them, and Howard was immensely in control of his technical wizardry, directing his playing with cool pragmatism and economy. Liszt the performer would have ramped up the virtuoso histrionics, not only to add to the music’s content but also, on occasion, to draw attention away from less-inspired moments.

Howard’s approach veered towards a one-size-suits-all style of engagement, impassive and efficient, and making you yearn for him to break, or seem to break, into a sweat – which he did in the Variations, a stunner of a piece that Howard drove with epic energy and drama to a magnificent conclusion. He was similarly on top imaginative form for the epigrammatic tone-poem Der Todesengel (The Angel of Death) from 1871, a terse revelation that, but for some forensic scholarship, would most likely never have been heard again. Then, to close, he let rip in all the Magyar high-kicks and yearning romance – some of it original folk music, some confected by Liszt the proud Hungarian – of the Rhapsody No.19, which deserves to be as popular as No. 2.

Howard used scores throughout – along with the services of a marvellously tactful page-turner (increasingly a luxury these days) – which may well have straitened his performance style. There was a very affectionate reception from the audience, and there was no encore.

Ballade No. 1 (‘Le chant du croisé’) S170

Ballade No. 2 S171

4 Valses oubliées S215

Petite valse (‘Nachspiel zu den drei vergessenen Walzer’) S695e

Der Todesengel S190a

Variationen über das Motiv von Bach S180

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 16 in A minor S244

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 17 in D minor S244

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 18 in F sharp minor S244

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 19 in D minor S244