The BBC Music Magazine Interview
Pianist Leslie Howard talks to James Naughtie
If you ask Leslie ★oward how to play Liszt, he has a simple answer. ‘Liszt is a composer who suffers greatly from players who either don’t get it, or want to use his music to show off. As soon as you play Liszt as if you are showing off he comes over as the trashiest composer in history – and that’s really very unfair.’
This comes from the only pianist to have recorded Liszt’s complete piano works (see p43). When ★oward started, for ★yperion, he thought there would be perhaps 50 CDS at most. This year the 100th disc has been added to the existing box set of 99. And now it’s over.
So ★oward is steeped in Liszt. When we meet at his home in south London we talked about the man as well as his music. What kind of pianist does ★oward think the ★ungarian virtuoso was? ‘I think his playing must have been marvellous, compelling. Not just because he could get round the machine, which he evidently could. After he was about 34 it’s pretty clear that he never practised again. There were very few public performances after that, and concerto appearances were few.
‘But everyone who heard him reported that no one could play the piano like him. When he was young, Chopin was jealous and astonished by the way he played. Sometimes people thought there was too much beef in it. Sometimes he got bored in rehearsal and added sixths – because he could. ★is students thought he could make a sound they couldn’t reproduce. ★is playing had a singing voice.’
This brings us to the question of ★oward’s own approach. Throughout a long career, his performances have been celebrated for precisely that singing quality. ★oward, who came to London from Australia in the early 1970s, is consciously a devotee of a style which he regrets has gone out of fashion. ‘Just after the Second World War pianists were already starting not to play like the older generation –
the generation that ended with Myra ★ess and Dinu Lipatti. With the exception of the Russians – playing in the old-fashioned manner like Sviatoslav Richter – people were starting to become steel-fingered.’
And now, though he mentions no names, he says too many celebrated players are, frankly, just hitting the piano too hard. Don’t be terrified by the notes. You have to learn them. But then you have to address the piano quietly, as Liszt did. There are famous pictures of him with arms flailing in the air, but that’s not how he played. ★e sat kind of low, very casually and comfortably, which means that he knew you didn’t have to tense any muscles that you didn’t need to use.
‘That’s what I’ve tried to do as long as I can remember. If you are at all stiff, you’ll transmit that to the sound that you make. And there are quite a few famous pianists who make a much harder sound than I think they ought to.’
★oward’s fascination with performance springs in part from his parallel career as a musicologist, not least working with Liszt manuscripts. Of particular interest is the hoard that still lies in the library near the composer’s home in Weimar.
‘One of the most often recorded pieces is the Dante Sonata, and there are blatant wrong notes in it. People tend to look only at the manuscript and the score used by the printer, then the first edition. But
Liszt overlooked mistakes. ★e was a very bad proofreader. Instead of correcting a mistake, he’d compose on the page and then wouldn’t notice mistakes. With this piece, all four manuscripts are missing natural signs, but I’ve found an album leaf with a wonderful procession of chords that tells you what he meant to do.’
Liszt himself looks down from photographs on the wall throughout our conversation, and I wonder what an evening with him would have been like. ‘Among the composers he was the best read. So I can’t imagine anyone else having the breadth of his conversation. There was almost no one in Europe he didn’t know. Every time he went anywhere he mingled, with monarchs to start with, then artists. ★e knew people from George Eliot to ★ans Christian Andersen, to Eugène Delacroix, ★onoré de Balzac, Victor ★ugo, you name them. And of course all the musicians. ★e got on like a house on fire with Queen Victoria when he first came here in
1840. Then he didn’t come back to this country until 1886 and she had him stay at Windsor Castle. They were quite ribald about the fact that they were rather older than when they first met.’
And he tended to be kinder about other musicians than they were with each other, or with him. Brahms was famously sniffy. ‘★e was mistrusted by others because he wrote the music of the future – people like Brahms to be honest, the same Brahms who the moment he wrote his Second Concerto sent it hot off the press to Liszt in the hope that either the old boy would perform it, or make sure that all his students played it. ★e did the latter.
‘Liszt was very gracious about other composers – not like Beethoven who was always getting stuck into everyone.’
A conversation with ★oward is exhilarating. Even at 10 in the morning, he’s bubbling with good humour, which can’t be said for all musicians, and there’s a boyish enthusiasm for music lore and anecdote. ★e made his concert debut in Melbourne when he was 13, and as a youngster he was famously gifted, not only with a secure technique but with a capacious memory. These strengths gave him a lifelong love of performance. ‘You have to know the music and instrument very well, and you have to remember that there is going to be someone in the audience who hasn’t heard this piece before. So your job is as a storyteller. And let’s not forget you are an entertainer. Face it. And that means not boring anybody.’
Whenever ★oward sits at a piano, he’s on a happy journey. ‘Any time I play Liszt’s Second Concerto – which begins with all those sevenths, which are in their way as outrageous as the start of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – you know how every chord has to sound so that you can follow their life and adventures as the piece goes on.’
And talking about Liszt, a revolutionary in his way, you hear ★oward’s excitement about the combination of showmanship and daring that defined him. ‘Think of an obvious showpiece like the Grand Chromatic Gallop that he played in his concerts. It was popular with people, for obvious reasons. But there are bits in it just for the cognoscenti. Towards the end, for instance, with all those whole-tone scales. What? Whole-tone scales in 1837? What have we got here? ★e never wrote anything that was just a wee showpiece, as his contemporaries did. Most of them are forgotten, unless you want to start an ★enri ★erz revival… no, I thought not.’
With a considerable repertoire to his name, ★oward is a composer himself. And it’s from the points of view as musicologist, player and composer that he has found the exploration of Liszt rewarding enough to have embarked on that marathon task of recording his whole piano repertoire.
It’s an oeuvre greater than all the piano works of Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Mendelssohn and Brahms put together.
‘I suppose that without even thinking about it, as soon as I look at a piece I ask how it was put together. That has one advantage. It helps you memorise things, because you’re always trying to think about the construction. So I guess it helps.’ And then there is the question of ★oward’s playing itself. When he issued a disc of Beethoven earlier this year, to mark ★oward’s 70th birthday, Simon Perry, founder of the ★yperion label, said the performance was ‘barely credible’ because ‘his playing remains as young and fresh as when I first heard him play.’
As far as role models are concerned, it’s not surprising to hear ★oward hark back to the golden age. ‘I think Rachmaninov is the best pianist ever to have made a record. If you want to be delighted, just listen to his recording with Fritz Kreisler of Grieg’s Violin Sonata No. 3. It’s just amazing. They’re completely different players, of course. Rachmaninov would pull it all apart and then put it back together again, because otherwise it would have been no good, and Fritz would play it through just like that and say – let’s go to lunch.’
There’s another hero, his fellowaustralian Percy Grainger. ‘★e was a pioneer. ★e made the first recording of Chopin’s B Minor Sonata (in 1925) and it’s sparkling, brilliant poetic playing. ★e’s such a musician, and you can feel him caressing the piano all the way through.
It’s full of charm, and charm is a quality almost entirely missing from modern classical performance.’
That’s something of a theme during our conversation. On the subject of pianos, for example, ★oward says he prefers his mid-1980s Steinway to later instruments. ‘Mine still has the fatter hammers, where the later ones make a harder noise that I don’t like at all.’ And when it comes to interpretation, he says what many performers wouldn’t: that if he’s listening to the Brandenburg Concertos ‘sounding as if they’re being played with scrubbing brushes’, he’s reminded that if the sound of the bow on the strings is louder than the notes, he doesn’t want to hear it.
But it’s Liszt who has intruded, happily, into this encounter, the figure with whom ★oward is so closely associated. And he leaves me with one tantalising thought.
When Liszt played for Queen Victoria in 1886, it’s known that she owned a phonograph recording device. Is it possible that…? The Royal Archives have told ★oward that they are not aware of anything in their collection. But he wonders if somewhere a recording is lurking. If there is, it is buried treasure. Leslie Howard’s recording of Liszt –
New Discoveries Vol. 4 is reviewed on p102
‘Charm is almost entirely missing from modern classical performance’
BBC Radio 4’s James Naughtie meets the Australian pianist as he celebrates his 70th birthday and reaches the end of a remarkable journey recording every note of Liszt’s piano music
Old-school:Leslie Howard at Walthamstow Town Hall in 1980
Keyboard hero: ‘Rachmaninov is the best pianist on record’