BEETHOVEN The Creatures of Prometheus. Eroica Variations (Howard)
Contrary to the blurb on the back of the CD, Leslie Howard is not the first to record Beethoven’s The Creatures of Prometheus in the composer’s solo piano arrangement complete. Cyprien Katsaris did so more than 20 years ago (Piano21). The pianists couldn’t be more different if they tried. Katsaris’s interpretation minimises the music’s orchestral origins, favouring the kind of pointed articulation Glenn Gould loved, replete with tenutos, stresses and chordal balances that are essentially pianistically oriented. Conversely, Howard’s wider dynamic range and more massive sonority (abetted by more resonant engineering) brings the listener smack into the theatre pit.
In Howard’s hands, the Allegro con brio section in Act 1’s opening number conveys more of the music’s opera buffa character than in Katsaris’s scaled-down reading. While Katsaris clips the F major Allegro vivace Minuet to mincing and unsettling effect, Howard’s grounded rhythm and exuberant lilt are exactly what the music needs. To be certain, Katsaris brings a lightness of texture and a suppler double note technique to the Act 2 Terzetto, compared with Howard’s plainer execution. Howard, however, is keener on maintaining balletic momentum in the finale, in contrast to Katsaris’s fussy inner voices and underlined accompaniments.
Howard faces tougher catalogue competition in the Eroica Variations. In the Introduction’s ‘a tre’ variation, for example, Howard doesn’t keep the ground bass in consistently steady perspective against the flowing counterline crossing back and forth between treble and bass registers, although the contrapuntal interplay and gnarly double notes in ‘a quattro’ come off powerfully. While Var 2’s cadenza takes imaginative wing, Howard’s triplet runs tend to get sticky in contrast to Emanuel Ax’s incisively shaded fingerwork (Sony, 7/13).
He heavily pounds out Var 3’s repeated chords but brings a deft and humourous touch to Var 4 that compensates for occasional unevenness in the left-hand runs. Howard nails Var 7’s canon at the octave to perfection, fiercely characterising the contrapuntal repartee and the syncopated accents. Perhaps he works too hard juggling Var 13’s thick accompaniment against the obsessively repeating B flat top line (Clifford Curzon’s effortless control and deadpan demeanour remain unsurpassed – Decca, 1/72), yet the fugal finale abounds with dramatic impetus and daring pedal effects, as one should expect from a pianist of Leslie Howard’s protean gifts.