It is often said that if all of Australia’s pre-eminent musicians stayed in Australia we’d have the very finest orchestras in the world, ensembles to rival the Berlin and Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras. With the diaspora of Australian musicians peopling the likes of the BPO, the VPO, not to mention innumerable English and American orchestras, the world has gained where we here have lost. Of course, the modern world is indeed one large, multi-lane two way street, and Australian culture has benefitted from many outstanding overseas musicians and artists choosing to make their homes in this land girt by seas. A win-win situation, I guess.
One musician who from an early age was enticed into establishing his career from an overseas base was Melbourne-born pianist Leslie Howard. And what a career it has been, and continues to be. Howard has given recitals in the world’s leading venues and performed with the world’s finest orchestras and conductors, garnering a swag of titles and awards along the way. With a discography that is perhaps unrivalled in recording history, he has established himself as the world’s leading authority on the music of Liszt (and not just the piano music), a composer of note, an author and editor of scholarly editions, and valued mentor to the next generation of aspiring musicians. Luckily for us Howard continues to grace our shores returning for recitals and concerto performances, and kudos to the Monash Academy of Performing Arts for securing his one and only Melbourne performance this time round.
On Saturday night, Howard chose an all-Liszt program and what an occasion it proved to be. Presented with appropriately nineteenth-century style “salon” intimacy, Howard gave a chronological survey that highlighted Liszt the Innovator. Liszt may well have been the greatest pianist of the nineteenth century, perhaps of all time, but he was much more than that, essentially withdrawing from the concert platform at the age of 37, to focus on other endeavours, composition and conducting amongst them. Thankfully one no longer has to argue the case for Liszt being a composer of the first order, but it never hurts to be reminded why. Drawing on less well-trodden repertoire Howard convinced the attentive audience, both at the piano and through his informative introductions, that Liszt was a composer of marked originality – in his approach to harmony, his conception of large-scale structure, his transcendental technique, and as Howard related to the audience, texturally, even conceiving of a style of writing for a futuristic piano (though even this was to eventuate later during Liszt’s lifetime).
The entire recital bore witness to music-making of the highest order. It goes without saying that there was a consistently superlative technique on display. One would expect no less from a musician of Howard’s stature. This was complemented however by a depth of expression that revealed itself through a consistently warm tone, an unerring sense of musical architecture, an acute harmonic sensibility, deft pedalling, and an assured understanding of the musical rhetoric of the age. In other words, playing that has been informed by a lifetime’s dedication to the exploration of, and an advocacy for, Liszt’s entire, and considerably large, pianistic oeuvre. This was playing of real insight and devotion.
Highlights included the (for Liszt, somewhat unimaginatively titled) Großes Konzertsolo (1850), which anticipates the structural innovations of the later Sonata in B minor – unquestionably the greatest piano composition of its age. Also the little-heard Mephisto Waltz No 2 (1881), a work emblematic of Liszt’s lifelong pre-occupation with the Faust legend. Other works in the recital revealed Liszt’s unwavering interest in the music of both his contemporaries and his musical forebears. Firstly a set of Variations based upon the basso continuo from the first movement of Bach’s Cantata Weinen, Klagen, composed shortly after the death of his (i.e. Liszt’s) daughter Blandine, aged just 26. Then followed a paraphrase based on Verdi’s Aida. As Howard informed us, both Liszt and Verdi had a longstanding mutual respect for each other, yet circumstances meant that they never met, nor indeed, somewhat surprisingly, corresponded. Other works presented included the Scherzo and March (1851) – a work that was originally to be called Wild Jagd (Wild Hunt), that title later going to the better-suited Transcendental Etude No 8 (how wonderful it would have been to hear Howard play this as well). The Scherzo is little played due to its severe technical demands, but the challenges were easily, and moreover musically, met by Howard.
As a welcome encore Howard presented one of Liszt’s best-known études, Un Sospiro, a favourite teaching piece of the master teacher. But as always, Howard brought added interest to this familiar work by interpolating an authentic, and magical mini-cadenza.
That it falls to an Australian to be the most persuasive and comprehensive interpreter of the music of Liszt in the last 50 years is somewhat remarkable. Yet what we heard on this particular evening represents less than one percent of Howard’s iconic survey of the Hungarian master’s piano music for Hyperion. It is to be hoped that Howard returns again soon to reveal further Lisztian byways, as there is so much more to experience than the omnipresent Hungarian Rhapsodies. Perhaps some enterprising orchestra will have the foresight to engage Howard in a night of concertos – the revolutionary Eb major and the A major concertos for starters, perhaps with Liszt’s mighty orchestral transcription of Schubert’s Wanderer Fantasy thrown in for good measure. What a night that would be!
Leslie Howard’s piano recital was at Monash Academy of Performing Arts on Saturday, March 18, 2017.