Leslie Howard Concert Proves a Musical Wonder

Leslie Howard’s pianoforte recital Nov. 14 was the best piano performance I’ve seen in Salt Lake City since his concert at the U four years ago........Download PDF

by: Eliana Sanchez on November 21, 2012 - Utah Chronicle


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Leslie Howard at Wigmore Hall – Beethoven, Rachmaninov & Liszt - October 2012

Classical Source - Review by Colin Anderson


This attractive mix of repertoire leapt out of the listings: the daring of Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ Variations, the Faustian inspiration of Rachmaninov’s First Piano Sonata, and a selection of Liszt’s intriguing operatic paraphrases. Playing three of his favourite composers, Leslie Howard was in his element.

 However famous Beethoven’s ‘Eroica’ tune is (especially so in the eponymous Symphony and not forgetting its appearance in the score for The Creatures of Prometheus ballet), its basis for this magnificent set of Variations for piano is perhaps not in such general view. Howard opened with easeful command, cueing the Theme which spawns a gamut of moods, from charm to hedonism. It was good to hear a ‘modern’ account of this somewhat elusive work that matched great versions of yesteryear (such as by Annie Fischer and Emil Gilels, both of whom left us superb recordings); and if Howard was perhaps too logical as he traversed the youthful Beethoven’s unpredictable commentaries, he made much of repeated notes and trills and was resolute with the fiery Fugue.....Read Full Review Here

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Rakhmaninov
03/02/2012
Robert Beattie
Musicweb International (UK)


Full of passion and shimmering, nervous energy.’            

For this recital Leslie Howard elects to play the hugely difficult 1913 version of Rachmaninov’s second sonata. It keeps company with the long and technically demanding first sonata and a number of short encores. Howard’s programme notes are detailed, interesting and very informative.

Rachmaninov’s first sonata has not taken off in the concert hall in quite the same way as the second. It requires huge stamina and a big technique - something which may put some pianists off performing it - but it is a very appealing work full of Rachmaninov’s long, melancholy melodies and richly coloured textures. The three movements are based on the characters of Faust, Gretchen and Mephistopheles respectively. Howard does a good job navigating his way through Rachmaninov’s dense pianistic textures in the opening Allegro moderato, and brings out the brooding, atmospheric quality of the work. The melodies emerge in an organic way from the heavily embroidered textures and are full of passion and shimmering, nervous energy. The development section was particularly impressive and something of a technical tour de force. There were some nice tonal contrasts and nuanced phrasing in the lyrical Lento. The build up of tension and passion in the more agitated central section was particularly impressive. Howard brought considerable rhythmic drive and impetus to the Allegro molto finale before driving the work to an exhilarating conclusion.

The original version of Rachmaninov’s second sonata is something of a war-horse and a popular choice for young pianists seeking to impress juries at international piano competitions. Howard’s performance of the opening Allegro agitato was big and muscular full of rhythmic impetus and a wide range of tone colour...


The Three Pieces from 1917 are the last pieces Rachmaninov wrote before leaving Russia. They are uncharacteristic and experimental works. The opening Andante ma non troppo was not published until thirty years after the composer’s death...Howard gives an accomplished and polished account and makes a convincing case for performing them as a set.


The recital concludes with Rachmaninov’s transcription of the Nunc dimittis from his Vespers. The performance is stately and dignified...


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Rakhmaninov
01/01/2012
James Harrington
American Record Guide (US)


There is seldom a disc that arrives for review that creates the excitement and anticipation this one did. I followed Howard’s long odyssey though every version of every piano work composed by Liszt (Hyperion 44501 [99CD] July/Aug 2011). Maybe this release is the start of a new series? I am familiar enough with Howard to know that the Rachmaninoff sonatas have been a part of his repertoire for some time now. He recorded them in 2009, along with four short pieces that immediately reminded me of his thorough approach to the music of Liszt.

Howard’s performances of the sonatas are uniformly excellent. His technique, as proved so many times in the Liszt series, is fully up to the exceptional demands they place on the pianist. Santiago Rodriguez once remarked that the demands of Sonata 1 were possibly even greater than in Piano Concerto 3. Howard’s musical intellect shines in these works where themes and motives are used and transformed through all three movements of each. My favorite performances of the sonatas were both recorded in 1968; No. 1 by John Ogdon (RCA LP) and Horowitz’s own version of Sonata 2 (Sony 53472). Both remain unsurpassed. Howard comes very close to Ogdon, but can’t knock him out of his number one spot. Howard plays the original 1913 version of Sonata 2 as well as anyone. I am pleased that he writes that pianists should choose the original or revised version, but should not pick and choose parts from each. To that I add that Horowitz did his version with authorization from the composer; and, since it is most likely the composer never saw the finished product, it should remain the Horowitz version. I would not object to someone performing that if complete credit were given to Horowitz, but we don’t need anyone else’s version of this work.

The three pieces from 1917 were written at the same time that Rachmaninoff was making his major revision of the Piano Concerto 1, and these were the last piano works he wrote before he left Russia for good. In Howard’s excellent essay he correctly points out that these pieces did not originally have any titles, and they logically belong together as a group. The first, a dark composition in D minor, was not published until 1973, where it was given the title Prelude. The second is known as the Oriental Sketch, published in 1938; and the final work was published in 1919 in The Etude magazine with the title Fragments.

The arrangement for piano of the Nunc Dimittis from the Vesper Mass is taken from the early (1934) biography of Rachmaninoff by Oskar von Riesemann, Rachmaninoff’s Recollections. Page 252 is a reproduction of the composer’s manuscript, supposedly taken from the archives of the Russian Music Publishers in Paris. Howard corrects this inaccuracy by noting that anything in the archives of the Editions Russes would be entirely in Russian, and the words on the manuscript are English. The logical scenario would be that Rachmaninoff made this transcription for inclusion in the biography. The Nunc Dimittis transcription is not simply a piano reduction of the parts, which Rachmaninoff did supply for the publication of his great choral work. The are some small differences in the arrangement of parts specifically as a piano piece. To my knowledge, this has never been recorded before, and it is omitted from any list of Rachmaninoff transcriptions that I have ever seen.

I will keep this on my active listening stack for quite some time, even though it annoys me that the composer’s name is spelled Rakhmaninov—not the way he spelled it. Even though there is no indication of it, I’ll also keep my fingers crossed that this could be the first in a series that has the potential to fill a number of holes in the recorded repertoire of Rachmaninoff.



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Rakhmaninov
01/12/2011
Unknown
Philadelphia Citypaper (US)


Top Classical Albums of 2011

Leslie Howard Rachmaninoff Sonatas 1&2 (Melba) Absolutely magnificent playing by Howard, with his vivid performance of the early Piano Sonata No. 1 of Rachmaninoff, much less heard than the second, a real stand-out.


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Rakhmaninov Piano Sonatas Review

‘IRR Outstanding’


Leslie Howard is, of course, best known to the wider record-buying public as a world authority on the music of Liszt (and not just the piano music – he conducted a very fine account of Liszt’s oratorio Christus a few years ago in Leicester). He is also a noted authority on the music of many other composers, including Rachmaninov (with Robert Threlfall, Howard identified over 1,000 errors in the published versions of the Fourth Piano Concerto), and for his first recording devoted entirely to Rachmaninov, he delivers performances of the composer’s two piano sonatas which are wholly exceptional.

In terms of technique, nothing is beyond this pianist (Howard made his London début with Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto), but as with everything he does his performances are driven by a sensitivity born of a combination of his own work as a composer and scholar. Howard’s very readable booklet notes show that he wears his scholarship lightly, but it is in the performance that his qualities are fully in evidence.

The structure of each work is different, posing challenges of no little difficulty: the late-Romantic Russian piano sonata genre (Balakirev, Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, for examples, notwithstanding) contributed much to the repertoire, which is still not fully appreciated, Rachmaninov’s examples bringing the series to a magnificent end. As with much of his music, those seduced (or put off) by Rachmaninov’s genius for melodic invention are often unaware of the music’s deeper qualities. While yielding to no one in his revelation of Rachmaninov’s thematic beauty or virtuosic demands, Howard subtly reveals the composer’s finer points. For example, the growing crescendo in the finale of the D minor Sonata, reserving the fullest tone for the last pages (so many pianists climax too soon); the delicate and ingenious changes of dynamic and phrasing in the slow movement of the B flat minor Sonata (here, Howard unhesitatingly prefers the original version); and the varied nuances in the exposition of the opening movement in that work – all contained within absolutely right tempos.

These performances throughout are shot through with such insight. Apart from the two sonatas, Howard includes the three short pieces Rachmaninov composed in just two days in 1917: although untitled, and lacking an opus number, the proximity of their composition strongly implies they should be heard together. He also includes what might well be the first recording of the composer’s version for solo piano of the ‘Nunc dimittis’ movement (No.5) from his Vespers, Op. 37, which transcription was made in 1934 as a preface to a contentious book of reminiscences.

These four short pieces (far less well known than many of Rachmaninov’s other solo pieces) make a most valuable adjunct to the piano sonatas, Howard’s performances of which are, to my mind, the finest yet issued of these major works. The recording quality matches that of the performances.

Robert Matthew-Walker

International Record Review (UK)

November 2011  

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Rakhmaninov
08/11/2011
Albert Ehrnrooth
ACGE.NET (Australia)

Leslie Howard has this year received a lot of publicity for his complete recordings of the Liszt oeuvre for solo piano. Howard is clearly very fond of the virtuoso composers because Rakhmaninov was also an extraordinary pianist, helped by his enormous reach. Technically Howard knows no boundaries and he is up there with the best.

The first sonata is not standard repertoire and seldom heard but I can see why Howard has taken a shine to it.

Rakhmaninov's programme is based on Goethe's Faust and that was one of Franz Liszt's favourite themes as well. The second movement is the most immediate and appealing. The third movement practically hurtles along, but Howard never allows it to become cluttered and you can hear the drama unfold.

Howard's elasticity and rhythmic poise really come to the fore in the more exciting and romantic second sonata, here played in its original, grandiose version. The non allegro-lento movement is a kind of meditative farewell to the old Russia and there is a sense of "for whom the bell tolls". And yet this sonata never feels sentimental in Howard's treatment. The dry tone that sometime mars his interpretations is also completely absent.

As always with Melba releases the booklet is exemplary and the sound superb. Howard has written the essay himself with his customary authority.



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Rakhmaninov
10/10/2011
Peter Burwasser
Fanfare

It is hard to be indifferent about Rachmaninoff. I can understand the critics who deride his reactionary style, his self-indulgence, his sentimentality. But despite the solid intellectual marks against him, I cannot resist this music. Above all else, I find his work to be utterly honest and heartfelt. He has a unique voice, and he was a superb craftsman. Chances are, if you are reading this, I am preaching to the choir, and you already have recordings of this music, certainly the Sonata No. 2. Nevertheless, I find these performances to be uniquely compelling, powerfully shaped, and always in total deference to the composer.

Leslie Howard, born in Melbourne in 1948, is best known as a master of the music of Liszt, and the only pianist to have recorded all of the known piano music by the Hungarian master, occupying 97 discs!... Here, Howard is heard on an Australian label, named for that country’s most famous musical ambassador, which appears to be funded by some combination of government and private support. The production is lovely, including rich and natural recorded sound, a nice thick cardboard album, and insightful notes by the pianist.

The playing is an antidote to the kind of headstrong Rachmaninoff that was advocated, and then widely imitated, by Vladimir Horowitz. Since the composer himself anointed Horowitz as his finest champion, this approach carries an undeniable sense of authority about it. I would not want to be without it, especially for the sheer excitement it can engender. Horowitz’s final recording of the Piano Concerto No. 3, with Ormandy, may have its flaws, but the crashing energy, the sense of an imminent derailing of the Horowitz freight train, is electrifying. But that is not a word that describes Howard’s playing. His tempos are a shade slower than is the norm in the outer movements of the sonatas, but his superb lucidity and pearly tonality make for extremely satisfying listening. His control of the music’s pulse is completely natural, like human breathing. The apotheosis of Howard’s manner with Rachmaninoff is heard in the slow movements, which are supremely poetic, unhurried, yet flowing.
The brief three works from 1917, the last music Rachmaninoff wrote before leaving Russia forever, are dispatched with charm and vivacity. The Nunc dimittis is the composer’s transcription of one of his Vespers for chorus, ending the recital on a somber note. In a very crowded field, this is standout Rachmaninoff playing, and an easy entry on my 2011 Want List.



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Rakhmaninov
09/10/2011
Steven E. Ritter
Fanfare

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Sonata has suffered a defeat of sorts, being more ruminative and program-specific than the second, even if the program is generally unknown. In fact it is a rehashing of the elements from Liszt’s Faust Symphony, where the three main characters of Goethe’s masterpiece are presented in the order of Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. This piece rejects the patented long, arching extended melodies that so mark the composer, and instead focuses on motivic moments of minute Impressionism, reflecting the most detailed look at each personage. It lacks the formal glue and dramatic thrust that we find in the Second Sonata, and as a result has suffered a relative dearth of recordings, though there are still about 15 or 16 available, though the ones I am familiar with lack the poetic nuances of this new Leslie Howard reading.

Howard of course is the intrepid scaler of Mount Liszt, having gone up to the mountaintop and back again with his complete traversal of the Hungarian’s complete piano works. Now he has settled in with Melba, and this first issue proves a champ all the way around. Howard knits together the varied threads of the Sonata No. 1 in a way that demands attention; his poetic impulses are such that he almost cannot fail to garner attention for the way that he caresses phrases that in other hands seem undoable. This is not Rachmaninoff bombast here in any sense of the word, unless one cares to consider movement 3 somewhat of that ilk; I do not. This whole piece is, in a way, one of the most Lisztian things the composer ever wrote, and has to be approached in that manner. Howard knows this, and has the credentials to pull off what might be the best-recorded and -played performance yet.

The B♭-Minor sonata is one of the staples of the repertoire and has enjoyed about 100 recordings, far fewer of real worth, from Van Cliburn to Horowitz (1931 version) to Hélène Grimaud (hybrid 1931 with 1913 elements) to Earl Wild’s marvelous reading. Each of these has much to offer, though it must be admitted that the revised 1931 offering, undertaken because many considered it unplayable, serves up the hothouse elements to the traditional “Romantic” pianists in spades. Many of these versions are enjoyable, and flashy, and downright exciting; but I think careful and considered familiarity with the original conception shows that the composer had it right the first time, and structurally the thing makes more sense and is a far better choice for performers in general. After all, it was completed in the same year as The Bells, widely considered one of Rachmaninoff’s greatest pieces (and one of three that he thought were his finest works), and elements of the choral work’s sound and fury—and extreme Russianness—find their way into the sonata as well.

Leslie Howard has made the decision that the original version is the way to go and gives us a power-packed performance fully persuasive in its clarity and gorgeous textures. If you love your Rach over-the-top this might not ring your particular bells, but it’s close enough for me and brings such richness in other categories that I would find it hard to live without.
Though not published together, his last three character pieces would be the final things he composed before leaving Russia in 1917. They are wonderful short works that show the composer as a fine miniaturist. The Song of Simeon from the op. 37 Vespers is the only piece from that masterwork that Rachmaninoff wrote out specifically as a piano work, and wished the whole movement to be performed at his funeral (it was not). The piece is a slight variant from the corresponding vocal score, but substantially the same. Howard brings the same sensitivities and execution to these works that he brings to the sonatas, rounding out an extremely attractive disc.



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Rakhmaninov
01/10/2011
Paolo Hooke
Fine Music (Australia)

The renowned Australian-born UK-based pianist Leslie Howard is perhaps best known for his epic 99-disc anthology of the complete piano music of Liszt, a mammoth achievement which has earned him the Guinness World Record for the largest recording project ever undertaken by a solo artist.

As well as being a world authority on Liszt, Howard has a passion for Russian music and in his debut disc with Melba Recordings, we are treated to a first-rate recording of Rachmaninov, the first to offer the coupling of the composer’s two piano sonatas with original published version of the second, rather than the revision.

The Sonata No. 1 in D minor , Op. 28 dates from 1907, and the Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 in its original version is from 1913, considered unplayable by many pianists of Rachmaninov’s time. In this release we hear the sonata in its original brilliance, described by Howard as ‘the last and one of the greatest of the Russian Romantic sonatas’.

Howard, who is also a respected scholar, has included four piano miniatures which were composed by Rachmaninov for his own edification. Three Piano Pieces were written as he was about to leave Russia forever. Howard writes: ‘He managed, over just two days in November 1917, to write an aching threnody, a defiant bit of true grit, and a little piece of almost unbearable nostalgia.’ The fourth miniature is the solo piano version of the fifth movement of the Vespers, ‘unquestionably one of the great masterpieces of Russian liturgical music’, says Howard. The recording has a generous total timing of 75 minutes and features comprehensive booklet notes by Howard, described by The Guardian as ‘a master of a tradition of pianism in serious danger of dying out’. It is highly recommended.



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Rakhmaninov
01/10/2011
Geoffrey Norris
Gramophone (UK)

Leslie Howard captures the virile energy of the two piano sonatas with panache.

A strong case can be made for either of Rachmaninov’s two versions of the Second Piano Sonata. In the right hands, both of them can assert their impact. However, if there is greater clarity and concision in the 1931 revision, there is also a nagging feeling that Rachmaninov was on occasion just a little too liberal with his blue pencil in the first movement and (especially) the finale. Leslie Howard espouses the first version of 1913 on this disc and he does so with terrific panache in Rachmaninov’s bold, texturally intricate writing, allied to a very sensitive awareness of the rich, varied palette of keyboard colour. He also conveys the music’s virile energy, which carries the ear convincingly through those passages that the composer felt could be dispensed with. The finale in fact gains in breadth of argument and structural symmetry, particularly, as here, in a performance that is in complete control of the pianistic demands and of the architectural span.

Similarly the First Sonata, which Rachmaninov heavily edited before publication in 1908, is given a firm dramatic thrust and character by Howard, making this coupling of the two sonatas a highly desirable acquisition. Interestingly, he also includes the three solo pieces that Rachmaninov sketched in Moscow in November 1917, shortly before leaving Russia for the last time, the vivacious ‘Oriental Sketch’ framed by the “Andante ma non troppo” and ‘Fragments’ that speak of heartfelt introspection. Rachmaninov’s piano arrangement of the ‘Nunc dimittis’ from the All-Night Vigil is a poignant envoi.



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Rakhmaninov
10/08/2011
Phillip Scott
Limelight

 
Australia's most prolific Romantic pianist takes on Rachmaninov in turbulent performances.
It is hardly surprising that the Australian-born Leslie Howard has been typecast as a Liszt pianist: he recorded the Hungarian master’s complete piano works on 99 CDs. It is therefore interesting to hear him in other music, even if it is not far removed from his specialty. The two composers were both known as phenomenal lions of the keyboard, but what Rachmaninov also requires is depth of feeling. The last of the great Romantics, his piano music is imbued with a distinctively Russian angst. A full, deep tone is required to express the melancholy in his slow music and the barely concealed savagery in his turbulent climaxes.

Howard meets these demands, and puts them to good use in the earlier D minor Sonata (1907). In this work there is a sense of the composer stretching his wings: his habitual use of sequential passages in place of development is rather transparent, especially as the melodic content is not all that memorable. Howard finds moments of pure tranquillity in the slow movement but strikes me as heavy-handed in the rhythmically charged finale. The B flat minor Sonata is more mature. An entrancing slow movement opens with Scriabin-like chromatic harmony and later incorporates the composer’s beloved bells. He revised the sonata in 1931 but Howard (like most current pianists) plays the fresher 1913 original.

Everything about this disc is superior: sound, packaging, and Howard’s sympathetic performances of the sonatas and the affecting Piano Pieces, written as Rachmaninov was leaving his homeland for good.



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Rakhmaninov
19/07/2011
Paul Turok
Turok’s Choice (US)


Rachmaninov’s two piano sonatas are smoothly played by Leslie Howard. The First, difficulty as it is, has no textual problems. It is complicated music, though. The slow movement is rambling. The finale is more definite music than the other movements; the listener is able to understand the rhythmic basis and the melodic content. The Second, which the composer considered prolix, was revised, cutting out most of the piece. Howard uses the original (long) edition of the Second Sonata, which seems to be the preferred version these days. The writing in the first movement is florid, with a second theme that is recognizable. The slow movement has simpler textures, and is basically melody with accompaniment. The finale is virtuosic, with clever diminution of some melodies. (Horowitz used a pastiche of the original and revised editions.) The disc also includes Three Pieces the composer wrote in 1917, and an arrangement of “Nunc Dimitas” from Rachmaninov’s Vespers. Howard has the technique and understanding to play these works brilliantly. The disc is recommended.


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Rakhmaninov
18/07/2011
Geoff Adams
Otago Daily Times (New Zealand)


Another outstanding release from the Australian label are these sonatas by Rachmaninov (Melba uses a different transliteration) plus Three Piano Pieces (1917) and the Russian composer's brief arrangement of Nunc Dimittis Op 37 No 5. Melbourne-born Howard is probably the most prolific soloist on disc with more than 130 recordings.

Sonata No 2 is a showpiece for virtuosos, considered unplayable by many when written in 1913 and then simplified after its premiere, but here Howard romps through the original version to show what a great Romantic sonata it is, resonant with the ever-present tolling of bells, as Howard observes in the notes.

Recorded in England in 2009, this is a treat for all Rachmaninov and piano music lovers.

Highlight: Sonata's original splendour.


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Rakhmaninov
10/07/2011
Michael Tumelty
The Herald (Scotland)


Leslie Howard is a colossus among concert pianists. He is Australian, and though familiar to those who know the inside of the music business, he might be less well-known to the wider world.

He is most famous for his immense 97-disc recording of the complete Liszt, but that must not be allowed to overshadow this new recording on the Australian Melba label, on which he plays both of Rachmaninov’s Piano Sonatas in the most authoritative interpretations and performances I’ve heard in many a year.

In particular, his performance of the mighty Second Sonata, which he plays in the original version (Rachmaninov had revised it during a period of uncertainty), completely validates the composer’s first thoughts and is delivered with absolute conviction by the Australian, whose intellectual command of the music, never mind the spectacular virtuosity, is breathtakingly represented by the sheer clarity he finds in the score, where some find only thick textures and thunder. This is a landmark recording.



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Rakhmaninov
07/07/2011
Gavin Engelbrecht
Northern Echo (UK)


Pianist Howard presents the first recording of this coupling of Rachmaninov’s first Piano Sonatas with the original version of the second. The CD also includes four exquisite miniatures. Expressive playing from an authority on Russian music. Stimulating listening.


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Rakhmaninov
03/07/2011
Bob Crimeen
Sunday Herald Sun (Australia)


Having recorded more than 120 hours of Franz Liszt’s often demonic piano compositions, Melbourne-born piano virtuoso Leslie Howard was perfectly prepared for the Everestian challenge of Sergei Rahkmaninov’s two might sonatas, plus four exquisite miniatures to give the CD 75 minutes duration.

The result is a twin triumph: for Howard, a technician of awesome capability, and Melba Recordings, which released a disc of astonishing technical purity from the recording sessions in Suffolk’s acoustically responsive Potton Hall.

How 10 flying fingers can produce the sounds Howard makes seem simple at the original Sonata No. 2’s powerhouse conclusion leaves the listener spellbound.


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Rakhmaninov
01/07/2011
Evan Meagher
Readings Monthly (Australia)


Melbourne-born Leslie Howard is one of the world’s most highly regarded pianists. Having recorded the complete piano music of Liszt...he brings us another world first, this time for our own Melba Records – the coupling of the two Rachmaninov piano sonatas, featuring the original 1913 version of the second sonata. The original version was considered too difficult for pianists at the time, and is still rarely heard today. It is a wonderful work, with impossibly thick cascading chords that Howard deftly manages, confidently expressing the work’s rich harmonies and textures. The disc also includes several miniatures, including a haunting arrangement of the fifth movement of the Vespers.


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Rakhmaninov
15/06/2011
Andrew Fawcett
Audiophilia (Canada)


Leslie Howard must surely be the most prolific pianist active today; his 100 CD (and still growing!) anthology of Liszt’s piano music recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest recording project undertaken by any artist. His other great passion has been for Russian piano music, with several important premiere performances to his credit, and this is the first recording to offer the coupling of Rachmaninov’s two Piano Sonatas with the original published version of the Second, rather than its later revision. Rachmaninov was famously sensitive to criticism, so it was quite common for him to revisit works that had not been well-received. In the case of these two Sonatas – the First composed in 1907, the Second six years later – the public response to both appears to have been reasonably positive, so it is unclear why the composer quickly resolved to revise the Second; the reaction of contemporary performers to the work’s technical difficulty may have been a factor. When that (significantly shorter) revision did eventually appear in 1931, the original version fell out of currency and has only recently been restored to print – much preferring the original, Howard characterises it as “the last and one of the greatest of the Russian Romantic sonatas”. Ever the tireless musicologist, Howard has also thrown in four little-known miniatures, written by Rachmaninov for his own edification.

Clocking in at close to half an hour each, the Sonatas are large-scale, sprawling works – far removed from the tautly-composed miniatures of the Preludes. Often pensive and reflective, with stormy interludes and a darkly dramatic conclusion, the First is not really conducive to casual listening, its leisurely and unpredictable development rewarding closer attention. The bold opening flourish of the Second Sonata heralds a sunnier, more extrovert and lyrical work. It is clear that Howard is very much at home with this music – certainly, I find his Rachmaninov no less convincing than his Liszt, and compliments obviously can’t come much higher! As regards the recording, let me say only this – I own a lot of solo piano music, and have long agonised over which is the single finest recording. I agonise no more, because this is! A rare overseas venture for Melba, the recording was made at Potton Hall in the UK, a regular venue for Hyperion (and others), so its quality can only be explained by the involvement of star engineer Tony Faulkner. Great packaging sets the seal on another compelling release from this consistently innovative label.



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Rakhmaninov
11/06/2011
Howard Smith
Music & Vision (UK)


Leslie Howard brings to these recordings an authoritative understanding of Czarist, Communist and exile Russian society and its music, wedded throughout to a staggering technique..... A final word for Melba: the Leslie Howard release epitomizes the company's outstanding production values with its superior audio, quality packaging and innovative presentation.



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Rachmaninov

Nunc dimittis, Three Piano Pieces, Piano Sonatas Nos 1-2
Melba MR 301127
Australia's most prolific Romantic pianist takes on Rachmaninov in turbulent performances.

It is hardly surprising that the Australian-born Leslie Howard has been typecast as a Liszt pianist: he recorded the Hungarian master’s complete piano works on 99 CDs. It is therefore interesting to hear him in other music, even if it is not far removed from his specialty. The two composers were both known as phenomenal lions of the keyboard, but what Rachmaninov also requires is depth of feeling. The last of the great Romantics, his piano music is imbued with a distinctively Russian angst. A full, deep tone is required to express the melancholy in his slow music and the barely concealed savagery in his turbulent climaxes.

Howard meets these demands, and puts them to good use in the earlier D minor Sonata (1907). In this work there is a sense of the composer stretching his wings: his habitual use of sequential passages in place of development is rather transparent, especially as the melodic content is not all that memorable. Howard finds moments of pure tranquillity in the slow movement but strikes me as heavy-handed in the rhythmically charged finale. The B flat minor Sonata is more mature. An entrancing slow movement opens with Scriabin-like chromatic harmony and later incorporates the composer’s beloved bells. He revised the sonata in 1931 but Howard (like most current pianists) plays the fresher 1913 original.

Everything about this disc is superior: sound, packaging, and Howard’s sympathetic performances of the sonatas and the affecting Piano Pieces, written as Rachmaninov was leaving his homeland for good.

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Liszt New Discoveries Vol 3: Romancero espagnol. Trois chansons. Two pieces for Christus. Magnificat. Albumblatter, etc

EDITOR’S CHOICE GRAMOPHONE

A must for Liszt completists as Leslie Howard makes some rare finds indeed. More than a decade after Leslie Howard put his seemingly comprehensive Liszt cycle to bed, so to speak, the indefatigable pianist/scholar has amassed nearly two and a half hours’ worth of previously unknown material that ranges from album-leaf scribbling to several substantial large works.

The collection opens with a real find in the three movement 20 minute long Romancero espagnol, dating from the 1840’s. Careful restoration from the manuscript yielded a performing version published by the Liszt Society journal in 2009. The music is quite extrovert, dramatic and harmonically adventurous. Although the finale is based on the same Jota aragonesa familiar from Liszt’s Spanish Rhapsody, it’s treated quite differently for the most part. Howard also presents a first version of the Scherzo und Marsch that’s a little more prolix and texturally unwieldy in comparison to the more compact and scintillating revision. The second of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy appears in a much earlier and more difficult that Liszt would revise to superior pianist effect years later. Conversely, Liszt returned to his definitive and quite faithful transcription of the March form Wagner’s Tannbauser in order to add a few improvisational flourishes and alteration. Even the most fragmentary short works hold fascination, such as the Andantino in A flat, which is a wistful, introspective setting of Chopin’s Polish song “The Maiden’s Wish”, while by contrast, an arresting, furious chromatic gesture initiates a fugue that breaks off after 18 seconds.

Clearly tackling Liszt anew in the studio has revitalised Howard’s pianism. Sample the thundering sonorities he summons from the piano’s bowels in the Magnificat, S182a, the relaxed ebb and flow he brings to the “simplified” Valse-Impromptu, or how even the most fragmentary works never fail to communicate shapely elegance (the 19 second Cadenza S695f, for example). As always, Howard’s annotations reveal a high level of detective work, musical insight and scholarship without pedantry.

Jed Distler, Gramophone, March 2011


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Liszt New Discoveries Vol 3: Romancero espagnol, S695c; Trois chansons. Christus, S498c: Two Pieces; Magnificat, S182a etc

One of the great recording enterprises, Hyperion’s Liszt series with Leslie Howard continues its appendices in the form of this third volume of “New Discoveries”. Two longer pieces appear on the first disc, while the second comprises several transcriptions alongside a veritable sheaf of Album-Leaves.

The 1845 Romancero espagnol was intended for publication in 1847, but it didn’t happen. To compound matters, the pages of the MS are not numbered. Leslie Howard’s version gives the piece in three clear sections, each with a theme to itself. Howard’s touch is remarkable, as much for its delicacy as for its strength. The outgoing, Spanish through and through finale is remarkable. Howard realises the abounding diversity of Liszt’s textures and conveys this richness faultlessly, while invoking the spirit of the dance.

The oratorio “Christus” has never attained popularity. Here are two sections taken from the vocal score as arranged by the composer, ‘Introduction and Pastorale’ and ‘Das Wunder’ (The Miracle). Dated as around 1871, the music seems to have many characteristics of Liszt’s late period. Howard makes the first movement supremely meditative; the ‘Pastorale’ is simply delicious in terms of texture, evincing a sense of suspended disbelief. The second movement moves from initial dark rumblings via some passages that frankly do sound like a piano transcription.

The Magnificat is the first draft of the Alleluia (S183/1) and remains unpublished. Howard makes it sound grand and proud. Although the sources of Trois Chansons are not known, Liszt’s transcriptions are pure delight. Howard gives them the dignity they require. In total contrast comes the too-brief, ultra-tender Album-Leaf (S166p). Like the one catalogued as S166q, this came to light in a 2006 auction (Howard copied them before they were sold!). Both are exquisitely song-like (the second is a shorter version of the sixth Consolation and is absolutely delicious, especially in Howard’s performance with its superb cantabile). After these, the theme of the Variations, ‘Tiszántuli szép léany (S384a), seems infinitely childlike. The authorship of this set of variations is questionable – perhaps Liszt oversaw its composition?. Still, it is two-and-a-half minutes of pure delight.

Howard’s control of Bellini-like cantabile enables the Romance by Michael Wielhorsky (1756-1866) to sing magnificently. First, he presents what is referred to as the “first intermediate version” (the second such version opens the second disc). This is pure magic, with Lisztian flights of fantasy inserted as if they are the most natural digressions. The second version is shorn of a whole minute’s music (25-percent of the duration of the first version) – which seems quite cruel for such a short piece. Perhaps that is why Howard uses it as a lead-in to the Berlioz arrangement that one hears next on that disc.

Schlummerlied is the second intermediate version of the seventh movement of the enchanting Christmas Tree Suite. It is heard here in a copyist’s reproduction of the first version, a copy in the possession of Carl Lachmund (1857-1928) who worked for Schirmer. Perfumed and mysterious, it is based on harmonies one might consider more sophisticated than expected for a piece of such origins. Howard’s hushed delivery seems suffused with sleepy expectation. The first disc ends with Valse-Impromptu in an “Edition facilitée”: salon music par excellence.

The original of Berlioz’s Marche des pèlerins (Harold in Italy) uses lots of repetition of material, enlivened by varied scorings. Liszt made an arrangement in around 1836/7 for piano (another, much later second version is available in Volume 5 of the present series, while an arrangement for viola and piano is on volume 23). Howard conjures a lovely cantabile that projects the viola’s long line well. On piano it is fore-grounded more than one hears in the original, creating a solo line with mesmeric accompaniment. Liszt’s entirely characteristic decorations create sonorities of real beauty. If the shape of the piece (processional-recessional) is best heard in Berlioz’s magnificent scoring, Howard reminds us that Liszt could put his own characteristic take on colleagues’ works. The chimes of the end of the piano version are particularly effective. The 1876 version of the ‘Entry of the Guests into the Wartburg’ from “Tannhäuser” finds Liszt allowing himself to elaborate more on Wagner’s original than he had in previous editions of this transcription. Howard's performance exudes nobility.

Except for Wilde Jagd, the remainder of the second disc comprises short pieces. A brief Adagio non troppo (mid-1820s, identical to the introduction to the Allegro di bravura found in Volume 26) is beautifully shaped by Howard. The Album Leaves are marvellous snippets of Webernian brevity, often tailing off into questioning silence. The effect of a straight listen through is as mesmerising and disorienting as it is tantalising. The brief (19 second) cadenza to the First Mephisto Waltz leads to a 1”40’ Albumblatt on the same Waltz, a brief snippet of unrest.

Finally, Wilde Jagd: Scherzo (1851), the first version of Scherzo und Marsch (erudite readers will recognise the title of Wilde Jagd from Transcendental Studies), first published in 2009. Howard’s virtuosity is highly impressive and a fine end to a fascinating set.

Colin Clarke, Classical Source March 2011


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Liszt New Discoveries Vol 3: Romancero espagnol. Trois chansons. Two pieces for Christus. Magnificat. Albumblatter, etc

An extraordinary tour de force of pianism, musical detective work, and scholarship, well recorded and impeccably annotated as always. It honours Liszt’s memory in the best possible way by illustrating his many-faceted genius.

Jeremy Nicholas, Classic FM Magazine, May 2011


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Liszt New Discoveries Vol 3: Romancero espagnol. Trois chansons. Two pieces for Christus. Magnificat. Albumblatter, etc

All of this intriguing new material is presented with the discernment and sympathy which have become the hallmark of Howard’s Liszt series.

Patrick Rucker, International Record Review Jan 2011


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Liszt New Discoveries Vol 3: Romancero espagnol. Trois chansons. Two pieces for Christus. Magnificat. Albumblatter, etc

These CDs, the 98th and 99th in Leslie Howard’s epic Liszt series, amount to something more than the latest necessary purchase for completists; indeed this attest batch of previously unknown or long-forgotten items assembles into a pleasingly comprehensive musical portrait. Liszt the flamboyant touring virtuoso is represented here by the Romancero espagnol of 1845 (some similar material to Rhapsodie espagnole but very different treatment); the towering master-composer of the Weimar years by Wilde Jagd: Scherzo )a prototype of the Scherzo and March, not of the Wilde Jagd study itself); the benign musical poet by Schlummerlied of 1882, a variant of one of the Weihnachschaum pieces; and the transcriber by several fine items, including an early 1837 version of the Pilgrims’ March from Berlioz’s Harold in Italy. Even the sequence of tiny Album-Leaves has its moments.

To all this Howard bring his now happily familiar way with Liszt’s idiom. As ever, he beautifully allows the composer’s spontaneous, improvisatory streak to speak as naturally as it likes and needs to. And if his delivery of Romancero espagnol is o the mellow side this is evidently by choice, because the power unleashed in Wilde Jagd; Scherzo is as impressive as you’ll find anywhere. Memo to fellow Lisztians: don’t hesitate.

Malcolm Hayes, BBC Music Magazine 2011


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Wigmore Hall 2011

It was obvious that we should hear from Leslie Howard during Liszt’s bicentenary year and he duly started his doubtless prodigious international concert schedule with a connoisseur’s choice of rarities on 14 January. Almost throughout his playing was large-scale and dramatic, and this matched the opening pieces extremely well. The Grosses Konzertsolo is a rare case of a dud among Liszt’s often imaginative titles but it remains an important work that should be heard more often, and not only for its anticipations of the Sonata and. Less directly, the Faust Symphony. In the Weinen Klagen Bach Variations to Howard’s largeness of conception was added a more overt chromaticism, an acute expressiveness. He reminded us that this stands with the Sonata and Faust Symphony as one of Liszt’s very finest works.

Next there were the Sarabande and Chaconne on Themes from Handel’s Almira and there was almost as much Liszt in this bold piece as in the foregoing variations founded on a Bach bass. As Howard pointed out in his helpful programme notes, the Sarabande dominates and his performance showed this to be yet another important late work by Liszt even if almost ignored by the literature. And the revelations continued after the interval with what were said to be actual first performances. These were transcriptions of two orchestral interludes from Liszt’s oratorio Christus, the latter, The Miracle, virtually a symphonic poem for the piano. The other premiere was of Romancero espagnol in three parts, with more masterly playing by Howard. This was particularly so in the Jota aragonesa, which sounded like a superior rewriting of the final pages of the Spanish Rhapsody.

Max Harrison, Musical Opinion March-April 2011


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Liszt New Discoveries Vol 3: Romancero espagnol. Trois chansons. Two pieces for Christus. Magnificat. Albumblatter, etc

A further supplement to Leslie Howard’s complete cycle.  When virtuoso pyrotechnics are demanded Howard rises to the occasion with consummate ease. He avoids imposing his own personality on the music but presents interpretations that allow the music to speak for itself. Most of the items presented here are intimate in character, revealing the pianist to be, first and foremost, a poet of the piano. One marvels at his exquisite phrasing, textural balance and subtle pedaling as well as his innate judgement of tempo.

Brian Davidson, International Piano, 2011


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St Peter’s, Eaton Square – Leslie Howard

Even though one expects an extraordinary evening from a world class virtuoso such as Leslie Howard, it is still an uplifting and surprising delight to experience the fact.

Such was the sensation at his recital on March 25 to a capacity audience at St Peter’s Eaton Square, part of a new series. A specialist in the Romantic repertoire, with a new double CD of Liszt premieres to add to his vast discography, Howard produced ravishing orchestral colours from the pristine Fazioli grand resonating in the high-ceilinged spaces of the refurbished church, leading us on inspiring musical journeys.

As an opener, Beethoven’s Variations in F Op. 34 were sharply characterized, though they also were somewhat over rigid in their phrasing. Howard found his true form in the less often played Troisième année of Liszt’s Années de Pelerinage, weaving the seven exploratory pieces into a compelling architectural unity. Searching rhetoric in the first three pieces led to luminous splendour in the central ‘Les jeux d’eau a la Villa d’Este’, its swirling filigree effortlessly bubbly and flowing. Most impressive were Howard’s dramatic transformations of mood in each piece, from silences and fragmentary gestures, through bold bass rumbles, glistening high octave melodies suspended over pulsating chords, opening vistas like crevices in a rockface, leading through ravines to radiant outpourings.

Howard was fully immersed in Liszt’s unusual harmonic language infused at times with dissonant chromaticism, and the final piece ‘Sursum corda’ with its whole-tone passages in massive chordal blocs came across as a musical equivalent of one of the wonders of the world. More astonishing pianism followed in Tchaikovsky’s seldom played Grande Sonate, the symphonic grandeur of which Leslie Howard projected with orchestral richness, the fanfares of the opening movement and their delicate contrasting subjects developed into a massive climax. The expressive heart was the slow movement’s yearning semi-tonal theme, but for me the breathtaking highlight was the Scherzo, propelled with fleet-fingered wizardry, elegantly choreographed in the hands.

The leonine finale surpassed all in its electrifying contrasts and colours bringing this attractive work to a memorable conclusion. It would have been enough, had Howard’s encore not lifted us into even higher realms with Liszt’s Nocturne
based on Chopin’s Polish song ‘My Joys’, in which he interspersed the broad lyrical phrases and dancing motives with generous sprinklings of Lisztian stardust that shimmered into the evening air.   
Malcolm Miller, Musical Opinion 2010

Wigmore Hall 2009
The prize for the performance of the year should surely be awarded to Leslie Howard for his playing of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata Opus 106 at the Wigmore Hall on November 8. Intellectually, physically, virtuosically and emotionally this was a towering performance...Opus No 6 is the Mount Everest of music; very few pianists can achieve the perfection that Howard exposed for us.. Leslie Howard is an amazing performer.

John Amis, Musical Opinion 2010


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Cadogan Hall 2009

"One wonderful and unexpected moment occurred during Act II, at Orlofsky's party with a real performance on stage of Liszt's Hungarian Fantasies as part of the entertainment provided by the Prince for his guests. The Royal Philharmonic and Madeleine Lovell were joined on stage by the great pianist and scholar Leslie Howard. His performance of Liszt's fiendishly difficult piece was lively, colorful and stylish displaying an understated but dazzling virtuosity which grabbed one's attention. Mr Howard delivered an outstanding performance, perhaps the greatest highlight of the evening."

Seen & Heard 2009


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Cadogan Hall 2009

"The mystery guest was not a star singer, not a star pianist, Leslie Howard, who continued the Hungarian theme with a performance with the Royal Philharmonic orchestra of Liszt's Hungarian Fantasy, thrillingly played by this great Liszt virtuoso. It sat rather oddly within the context of champagne and decadence but who cares? It's a terrific piece."

Opera Magazine, September 2009


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Virtuoso Howard has a masterclass

Leslie Howard’s Recitals Australia concert was a masterclass in the art of making great music. In Howard’s capable hands, it also fairly might be said that it was an exercise in making music great.
Beethoven’s Six Variations Op. 34 is a fairly rigid affair, doing the right things and arguably lacking the ease of his later excursions into variation form including the Eroica variations which followed. It nonetheless is a deserving piece, from which Howard coaxed much charm. Charm also is present, if occasionally over-present, in Borodin’s Petite Suite, especially in the dancing mazurkas, though the suite is not without its serious side.

Glazunov’s Piano Sonata in B flat minor may have been composed in the 20th century but harkens back to an earlier era - even recalling, in the closing pages, Tchaikovsky’s famous concerto in the same key. Inventive without being inspired, its virtuosity is rather more overwrought than dazzling but it made for a terrific closer.

By a fair measure, the pick of the program was the third and final of Liszt’s Annees de Pelerinage (Years of Pilgrimage) suites. None of the ostentation so often seen in Liszt, this is introspective stuff, a sombre look back on a life shot through with imperfection.

Howard’s was a performance of stunning intensity, as might be expected from the undisputed master of this repertoire.
Peter Burdon - Adelaide Advertiser, July 2009


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Wigmore Hall 2008

It was a measure of the compelling nature of Leslie Howard’s artistry that a large audience was drawn to Wigmore Hall, and made up of many distinguished musicians and pianists from amongst the cognoscenti, attracted by the prospect of great pianism allied to musicianship that was as breathtaking in its virtuosity as it was revelatory in its grasp of the music.

Beethoven’s six short Minuets, dating from his early years in Vienna, can surely never have been offered as a concert item in the 213 years since they were composed. At once, with this fine pianist, we were drawn into Beethoven’s world, a world which demonstrated beyond argument that even in these tiny works, suggested no doubt by an aspect of the prevailing Viennese social world, that Beethoven could never be other than Beethoven. In this regard, Leslie Howard proved himself the ideal interpreter. One remains astonished that these are not better-known, except No.2, beloved of all amateurs who have tackled “Beethoven’s Celebrated Minuet in G”.

The F major Variations are more familiar, but are not as frequently encountered as such quality demands; a truly remarkable set, and – mindful of Schnabel’s pioneering recording from the 1930s – one doubted if any pianist currently before the public could have embraced the range of expression in this work as did Howard in this performance.

Yet it is with Liszt that Leslie Howard is synonymous, and – ending his recital on a completely different tack – we had the Twelve Transcendental Studies. From the opening gesture we were left in no doubt of Howard’s complete virtuosity in music that, truth to tell, at times exhibits characteristics of the circus but which, under the surface glitter, offers so much more in depth of musical experience. The awesome technical difficulties of this music forbid frequent live performance, but Howard proved conclusively that there is much more in this astounding collection than many pianists are minded to discover. For examples, ‘Paysage’ and ‘Mazeppa’ – the latter demanding the most comprehensive of virtuoso techniques – were outstandingly well played to a level that one would be hard pressed to name another pianist who could equal, let along surpass, Howard’s playing throughout on this occasion.

This was comprehensively flawless pianism from a true master of the instrument. More than mere virtuosity, this seemed to recreate the very inspiration that originally brought this music into being. After such towering music-making, Howard’s two encores, from Czerny’s School of Velocity (Opus 299), subtly bridged the gap between Beethoven and Liszt – Beethoven taught Czerny who in turn taught Liszt. It was equally revelatory to hear these pieces at the right tempo – they almost never are, despite Czerny having gone to the trouble of affixing metronome marks.

Robert Matthew-Walker Classical Source 2008


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Wigmore Hall 2007

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 experience Balakirev'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!

Colin Clark - Classical Source May 2007


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Wigmore Hall 2007

The public’s perception of the career of Leslie Howard in the past 20 years or so has been dominated by the astonishing achievement of his dedication to the music of Liszt, culminating in the thus far 98 CDs of the composer’s complete solo piano music released on the Hyperion label. But the range of Leslie Howard’s prodigious interests is much greater than specialising in Liszt, as was demonstrated by his solo recital at the Wigmore Hall on 24 April. The programme, entirely of Russian music, drew a very large audience indeed. They were rewarded by playing of the highest order, as those who have followed Leslie Howard’s recent career have come to expect.

The first half began with rarely heard pieces by Balakirev and Borodin and ended with Glazunov’s First Sonata of 1901. The second half was all Rachmaninov, the three posthumously published pieces from 1917 to the original version of the Second Sonata of 1913. Throughout, Leslie Howard played with the greatest possible strength and delicacy, allied to a profound musical grasp of the music he had chosen. At times, especially in the Glazunov and Rachmaninov pieces, the audience must have felt it was uncannily present at the very acts if creation. It is rare for a Wigmore Hall audience to give an artist ovations at the end of both halves of a recital but the extended cheers and standing applause which greeted Leslie Howard’s projection of these works was exceptional in concert going terms and fully deserved.

Robert Matthew-Walker - Musical Opinion 2007


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A Superhuman Technician, In the Flesh

Leslie Howard sometimes seems more myth than man. He is known as a pianist with a monster technique, a superhuman technique, a technique that should be physically impossible. And on Friday night, we saw — and heard — that the myth is true. Mr. Howard really does have that kind of technique. And he is a strong musician, to boot.
Mr. Howard comes from Australia, but has spent his adult life in London. He shares the name of the British actor Leslie Howard, who died in World War II, when the Germans shot down the commercial airliner in which he was travelling. The circumstances of that flight, and that attack, are mysterious. In any case, the pianist is known for playing absurdly hard pieces from the Romantic period. He has recorded the complete piano works of Liszt, over 97 CDs (on Hyperion).That is a staggering feat. That is a lot of notes. And never were there more notes on a recital than we heard on Friday night. Mr. Howard's program brought "The Romantic Russian Piano Sonata — 1848–1907."
He began with a sonata of Tchaikovsky, who wrote three for piano. This was the final one, in G major, called a "Grande Sonate" — and very grand it is, if not musically elevated. The first movement features an ocean of chords, which Mr. Howard handled exemplarily. He played those chords into the keys, resonantly. There is a great deal of bombast in this sonata — as in the others Mr. Howard performed — but this pianist knows how to trim, or manage, bombast. He is not a wild man of the keyboard. He is a smart man of the keyboard — albeit one with a circus technique. Incidentally, you may wonder whether Mr. Howard's recordings are for real: Can he play all those notes, or does he rely on technological trickery? You can trust the recordings — he really can play all those notes. And he is not all Sturm und Drang. For example, in Tchaikovsky's second movement, he produced gently rippling waves, absolutely even, and exquisite.
After the Tchaikovsky, he played a sonata by Glazunov. Piano music by Glazunov? Who knew? Mr. Howard knew (and I might mention that he is a scholar as well as a performer).The composer of "The Seasons," plus nine symphonies, wrote two piano sonatas, both in the year 1901. Mr. Howard played the second of them, and did so with rhapsodic power. This is not great music, no (and the same statement applies to just about all of the music on the recital). But it shows Mr. Howard off, and he shows it off. You should have heard the blizzard of octaves with which Mr. Howard concluded this sonata. To begin the second half of the program was a sonata by Rachmaninoff — not the famous one, No .2 in B-flat minor, but its predecessor, in D minor. This work is almost never performed, and Mr. Howard did a service just by bringing it to us. The sonata has a program, a story to tell: the Faust legend, of course, composers' favourite.
He closed his printed program with the Sonata No. 1 of Anton Rubinstein. This Rubinstein was one of the most famous musicians in all the world, in the second half of the 19th century. In fact, Artur Rubinstein, when he first started to concertize, had cards made up: "A. Rubinstein, Pianist — No Relation." As Mr. Howard explained in his program notes, Anton Rubinstein wrote his Sonata No. 1 in 1848 (probably), when he was 19 — and it is "of great historical interest for being almost certainly the first piano sonata written by a Russian." The sonata shows a wonderfully gifted young man, revelling in his talent. Mr. Howard laid on both the right fingers and the right spirit. What do you play for an encore, after a recital like this — something flashy? Mr. Howard might have been well served by playing a Bach sarabande. Instead, he played more Rubinstein, a waltz, in which he demonstrated — among other things — the art of the leap. Mr. Howard can travel a long way on the keyboard, very quickly, and very accurately.

Jay Nordlinger - THE NEW YORK SUN, July 24, 2006


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THE NEW YORK TIMES
Classical Music Review | Leslie Howard

Isn't It Romantic? Yes, and Edifying, Too
By ALLAN KOZINN

Published: July 28, 2005


A little Liszt can go a long way, but if anyone can turn a full evening of Liszt's grandly Romantic piano music into an edifying experience, it is Leslie Howard.

To say that Mr. Howard is a Liszt specialist is to understate his efforts. His most durable project is a 96-disc traversal of the composer's complete piano music for the Hyperion label. While preparing that series Mr. Howard edited many of Liszt's unpublished manuscripts, and he included a few rarities in his program on Tuesday evening, part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at the Mannes College of Music.

One was the "Grosses Konzertsolo," a precursor of the B minor Sonata. A few of the ideas - or, at least, gestures - that Liszt worked out further in the Sonata make an early appearance here. This is Liszt at his showiest, a muscular essay that ranges over the full keyboard and seems all but impossible to play with only two hands. It also has all the moves that can be found in parodies of flashy Romantic pianism. (Think of Chico Marx's set pieces.) Thundering bass chords, punctuated by pairs of quickly splashed chords at the top of the keyboard, give way to slow, mooning themes that angle their way through the middle range, accompanied by the machine-gun ripple of a treble obbligato.

There may be more to this piece than immediately meets the ear; certainly some of the connections, both thematic and formal, might be interesting to explore. Mostly, though, it was easier to be swept away by the performance than by the work itself. Mr. Howard's dramatic reading made it exciting in purely visceral terms and gave it the quality of a guilty pleasure - a classical equivalent of, say, an Iron Maiden concert, at which virtuosity and showmanship sometimes eclipse the music at hand.

Mr. Howard illuminated other sides of Liszt as well. In "Les Adieux - Rêverie sur un Motif de l'Opéra de Charles Gounod 'Roméo et Juliette,' " he touched on the dreamier, more delicately lyrical side of Liszt's work. He turned the variations on a theme from a Bach cantata, "Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen," into a pitched battle between Baroque and Romantic styles, with graceful renderings of the Bach chorale (sometimes complete with trills) appearing periodically amid Lisztian filigree and thrashing. Mr. Howard's restored version of the "Fantasy on Themes From Mozart's 'Figaro' and 'Don Giovanni' " showed how ingenious Liszt could be when working with first-rate material.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Debut on Melba Recordings - RAKHMANINOV’s Sonata No. 1 in D minor, Op. 28 from 1907, and the Sonata No. 2 in B flat minor, Op. 36 in its original 1913 version.....Read Review

 

 

 

 

 

Leslie Howard - Concert Pianist

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