Monday, 15 February 2021

LESLIE HOWARD PLAYS LISZT / The Hyperion Liszt Complete Solo Piano Works Edition

LISZT Piano Music

An Introduction to

the Complete Recordings

Leslie Howard, Piano

Hyperion LISZT1 / 2 CDs / TT: 2hr 38’54”


From 1985 to 1998, one of the greatest recording projects of all time was undertaken by a single pianist, the Australia-born Leslie Howard. Over 57 volumes and 95 compact discs released by the Hyperion label, he recorded the complete music for piano solo of Franz Liszt (1811-1886). The Hungary-born piano virtuoso revolutionised performance and piano literature of the 19th century, which in turn defined the cult of the modern day performing virtuoso. Without Liszt, there would simply be no Horowitz or Lang Lang. Although derided by certain quarters of the critical fraternity, his contribution to the piano, however, is incalculable.


Howard’s recordings defined the length, breadth and depth of Liszt’s creative output and was very much a labour of love. He was however not finished post-1998, having unearthed another few more hours of unpublished, unedited and possibly suppressed works, later recorded on Hyperion, as well as all the two-piano transcriptions of Liszt’s symphonic poems on the Brilliant Classics label.


I had the fortune of witnessing Howard perform and meeting him on no less than four occasions (in London, Singapore and Bangkok) over a stretch of almost 30 years, and can attest that he is still a formidable Lisztian, undaunted by his septuagenarian status. One year ago (before Covid-19 struck) in a basement concert venue at a Bangkok shopping centre, his readings of Two Legends, Reminiscences de Norma and Un Sopiro still had the capacity to provoke the shock and awe that Liszt once inspired.


While the world gradually recovers from the pandemic aftershock, I plan (ever so optimistically) to listen to all these recordings in my free time and record my impressions and observations on this blog. These are not meant to be serious or scholarly reviews, but the musings by an enthusiastic listener with hopefully something to share. So why listen to over 120 hours of Liszt? Because it’s there? Because I’ve got nothing better to do? Because it’s great music or is it just pure curiosity? Perhaps a little bit of everything.


Back in 1998 when Howard first performed at the Singapore International Piano Festival, he recoiled at the sight of the CD sleeves (by no means the complete set, yet) which I whipped out for him to autograph, exclaiming, “You must be crazy to have all these!” My reply then should have been, “Who’s the crazier one, having recorded them all?”, but I kept my counsel.

So here goes.


The Introduction to the complete set (listed by Hyperion as LISZT1) is an excellent sampler with 39 separate pieces covering various aspects of Liszt’s inspiration and output. Howard’s pithy selections mixes familiar favourites with some totally obscure pieces, capped off with a performance of Totentanz with the Budapest Symphony conducted by Karl Anton Rickenbacher.


The programme was subdivided into six chapters over two discs, each with a different theme. Liszt The Poet celebrated the lyrical side of the composer, with works like Un Sospiro and Consolation No.5. Liszt The Patriot saw him at his most nationalistic, represented by Hungarian Rhapsody No.2 (with a short cadenza ad libitum), Csardas Obstinée and shorter folk-inspired pieces. Liszt The Magician plumbed the virtuoso aspect, typified by Rigoletto Paraphrase, Gnomenreigen and the Grand Galop Chromatique (possibly his most vulgar number).


Liszt The Franciscan probed the spiritual realms with St Francis Walking On The Waves and some of his more arcane shorts. Liszt The Romantic returned to some degree of familiarity, like Liebestraume No.3, and transcriptions of Schumann’s Widmung and Chopin’s My Joys. Liszt The Prophet portrayed a visionary in late works like Nuages Gris, Bagatelle sans Tonalité, En Reve, before closing with an imperious Totentanz. Each of its variations are also individually tracked, which is most helpful. With each performance nothing less than first rate, supplemented by excellent and authoritative sleeve notes, this is a most satisfying introduction to the legacy of Franz Liszt.


Rating: *****



LISZT Complete Solo Piano Music Vol.1:Waltzes

Leslie Howard, Piano

Hyperion 66201 / TT: 74’40”


Contrary to popular belief, there is more than one Mephisto Waltz. There are actually four, but only the first (which everyone knows as the Mephisto Waltz, which also exists in orchestral form) is ever performed in concert and piano competitions ad nauseum. Of devilish inspiration, these play on the premise of tritones (the diabolus in musicus) and similar intervals and discords that grate on 19th century sensibilities. Similarly, there are also four Valses Oubliées (Forgotten Waltzes), of which the first is well-known as a popular encore.


Leslie Howard cleverly alternates between Valses Oubliées and Mephisto Waltzes, working through Nos.2, 3 and 4 (late works all), before closing with the familiar Firsts. This makes for an excellent sequence of listening and he throws in the once popular Valse-Impromptu and several less-known shorts into the mix. The famous Mephisto Waltz (No.1) is heard in an interesting version with extra bars which are invariably never played simply because nobody (except Howard) knows about it. Recorded in 1985, this was an auspicious start to the complete edition.  


Discovery of the Album:


Valse de Bravoure S.214 No.1 is a rare gem, delightfully playful and skittish, vulgar in a nice salon-like way, with the obvious emphasis on bravura.


Rating: *****



LISZT Complete Solo Piano Music Vol.2:

Ballades, Legends & Polonaises

Leslie Howard, Piano

Hyperion 66301 / TT: 72’32”


This was the first CD of the edition which I acquired, way back in 1989 at a Sunday brunchtime recital by Leslie Howard (with cellist Steven Isserlis) in Wigmore Hall, London. It cost me a princely GBP11 (then 3.3 Singdollars to 1 Sterling), but it was well worth the outlay. Of the paired works designated Ballades, Legends and Polonaises, only the second of each genre is performed with any regularity in recital, especially the Ballade No.2 in B minor.


It is a true classic, representative of Liszt’s brooding manner allied with the requisite fireworks. Howard performs the version with the quiet, reflective and frankly better ending, without the Horowitzian histrionics. Also included are the Berceuse and the short but quite lovely Impromptu (Nocturne) in F sharp major, the latter famous recorded by Horowitz in his late years.  


Discovery of the Album:

Polonaise Melancolique in C minor (S.223) is the unheralded First Polonaise (the Second in E major, is the famous one), imbued with a strong sense of tragedy but unjustifiably neglected. Some one should try this one out, a substitute for the overplayed Chopin polonaises.   


Rating: ****1/2

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