Liszt (The) Complete Piano Works

Leslie Howard’s ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ presented complete for Liszt’s bicentenary

Jed Distler

Liszt (The) Complete Piano Works

When Leslie Howard launched his complete Liszt cycle for Hyperion in 1985, could he have anticipated the amount of research, scholarship, detective work and restoration skills required to bring the project to fruition, let alone getting all of this music under his fingers and into his bloodstream? Surely no other pianist in history has had the vision, the patience, the facility, the curiosity and sheer willpower to track down and serve up every known note that Liszt wrote for solo piano, each possible version of every published and unpublished composition, every alternative reading (Liszt was an inveterate reviser), from established large-scale masterpieces all
the way down to the most obscure fragment, sketch and album leaf.

To celebrate Liszt’s bicentenary in 2011, Hyperion has repackaged Howard’s Liszt cycle in an attractively priced space-saving edition that deserves a place in any serious library. Rather than adhere to the original volume-number sequence, the discs are now reordered by category and housed in colour-coded cardboard sleeves for easy access. Each sleeve exterior indicates its respective disc’s contents, together with timings, recording dates and venues. A 128-page paperback booklet contains a disc and track index, an index by S number (according to Humphrey Searle’s pioneering catalogue, subsequently expanded upon and revised by Leslie Howard and Michael Short), an alphabetical index by work and an essay by Howard that serves as an introduction both to Liszt and to the recordings (Howard’s original booklet annotations for each original release can be accessed via Hyperion’s website).

Following the cycle volume by volume, one grasps the full scope of Liszt’s pianistic evolution and complex, multifaceted personality. The early works and études encompassing the first six discs find the young composer flexing his muscles, so to speak, and laying the groundwork for his innovative style. Next are major original works and cyclical pieces, followed by dances, marches and pieces on national themes, then all of the operatic fantasies, transcriptions and paraphrases on 13 discs. After 11 discs’ worth of concert transcriptions, we find Liszt’s prolific output of Beethoven and Schubert transcriptions, and conclude with the rarities, new discoveries and music for piano and orchestra. While none of Liszt’s two-piano works are present, Howard includes the composer’s significant four-hand transcription of his organ fantasy and fugue based on Meyerbeer’s “Ad nos, ad salutarem undam” (partnered by the late Geoffrey Parsons), Berlioz’s Harold en Italie (with viola player Paul Coletti) and the recitations with pianoforte.

The cycle’s best performances continue to wear well. Just to cite a few examples, Howard persuasively fuses power, fluency and textual rectitude throughout the Beethoven symphony transcriptions, the unwieldy Berlioz Symphonie fantastique “de‑orchestration” and the first version of “Vallée d’Obermann”. He is also responsible for one of the fastest, most direct and clear-eyed modern recordings of the B minor Sonata. The Ballades, Polonaises, B‑A‑C‑H Fantasy and Fugue, and Waltzes from Gounod’s Faust boast palpable dynamism while the Valse-impromptu, Berceuse, two Elegies and the Faust Symphony’s “Gretchen” movement transcription inspire some of Howard’s most tender, nuanced work. The pianist nails certain Transcendental Etudes more successfully than others.

Feux follets’ quicksilver introduction leads into an earthbound main section, yet the unnamed F minor is breathtakingly supple. Indeed, it would be too much to expect one person to play each and every Liszt composition equally well and the most dutiful of Howard’s performances – such as the Hungarian Rhapsodies or the first two books from the Années de pèlerinage – fall flat when measured against other versions. Similarly, Howard’s solid-enough double notes in the Don Juan Fantasy yield to Marc-André Hamelin’s feathery nonchalance, while his square-toed Tarantella from Auber’s La muette de Portici cannot match Earl Wild for fire and panache. Arrau’s Verdi paraphrase recordings operate on an altogether higher level of finesse and tonal sheen.

Yet, when you consider the totality of Howard’s achievement, his professionalism and integrity cannot be denied for one second, and he ought to look back on what he calls “the journey of a lifetime” with the strongest sense of pride, fulfilment and accomplishment.

© MA Business and Leisure Ltd. 2014