Leslie Howard

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Published: 27th June, 2018

Not that there was ever any doubt, but last night’s piano recital at the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall only confirmed Leslie Howard’s stature as the world’s pre-eminent living interpreter of the music of Franz Liszt. A sizeable audience attended the Melbourne Recital Centre’s latest offering in their hugely successful Great Performers’ Series to hear Howard present “Liszt at the Opera”, a varied program of transcriptions, paraphrases, fantasies and reminiscences that included a few well-known, but mostly less-well-familiar works by the Hungarian master.

As Howard detailed in his erudite program notes – and how one wishes that all notes by performers could demonstrate such wide-reaching historical perspective and musical sensibility – the works presented demonstrated that Liszt was no mere colour-by-numbers transcriber of operatic chart-toppers. His vivid re-imaginings of pre-existing material often amounted to what could rightly be termed original works.

As a musical aperitif Howard opened with the substantial Sarabande and Chaconne on themes from the opening act of Handel’s first opera Almira(1705). From the Baroque master’s singspiel original, only the melodies are retained in Liszt’s reworking from 1879, and here Howard’s performance was a model of tonal restraint and architectural nobility.

Then followed the Danza Sacraand Duetto finale from Verdi’s Aida. Howard’s shimmering touch was a highlight, with delicate tonal hues tinged by an extraordinarily deft use of the una corda, the pianist amply demonstrating that it is indeed possible to deliver a true cantabile with the left pedal in play.

To close the generous first half Howard presented the Fantasy on themes from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, a work that Howard has edited in a scholarly edition for Editio Musica Budapest. Howard held his power in check for much of the time, notably in Cherubino’s Voi che sapete theme, which only served to heighten the effectiveness of the later fortissimo climaxes.

After interval came Reminiscences on Meyerbeer’s  Huguenots, followed by a Rêverie on a theme from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. To conclude came more Reminiscences, this time on Bellini’s Norma where Liszt re-arranges seven themes from the opera to heighten dramatic impact in this condensed piano mini-drama. It was the Belgian pianist Marie Pleyel who had asked Liszt for an “especially brilliant concert piece” and in the Reminiscences de Norma, Liszt fulfilled her request in spades, and more! Throughout the second half it was Howard’s beguiling lyricism, his overwhelming ability to sustain large-scale dramatic structures, and the sonorous richness of his tone, so often complemented by extraordinary tonal refinement and delicacy of touch, that held the audience spellbound. Howard’s formidable technique served Liszt well last night, enabling the Australian-born pianist to become a more than convincing advocate for some of the prolific Hungarian composer’s lesser known works.

Departing slightly from the operatic theme for the night Howard offered up a deliciously lyrical and spacious account of Liszt’s Mes Joies–a masterful reworking of Chopin’s simple nocturne-like Polish song – as an encore. A foretaste of a future Howard recital of song transcriptions? Hopefully sooner rather than later.

Glenn Riddle heard pianist Leslie Howard at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, as part of the MRC Great Performers Series, on June 13, 2018.