The BBC Mu­sic Mag­a­zine In­ter­view

BBC Music Magazine - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: JOHN MILLAR

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’

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