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CD Spotlight
'... an ever expanding search for completeness ...'


samples Leslie Howard's
award-winning journey through Liszt

It was not all that long ago that anyone looking for recordings of concertos by Franz Liszt would have felt perfectly content to consider the usual E flat and A Major opuses, plus, possibly, the Hungarian Fantasy, the Totentanz, and, by extension, a few more esoteric items such as the Fantasy on Beethoven's Ruins of Athens, or the Malediction for piano and strings.

Now, in an ever expanding search for record-library completeness, we have a five-CD-in-two package, all part of Leslie Howard's integral keyboard Liszt for Hyperion; which will conclude this year with an astonishing total of 95 releases. Vols 53a and 53b contain, in addition to all the above works, the intriguing Grande Fantaisie symphonique on themes from Berlioz's Lelio, a posthumously published Piano Concerto in E flat (often labled No 3), De Profundis pour orchestre et piano principal, first recordings of the piano-and-orchestra versions of the Concerto pathetique and Grand solo de concert, the Hexameron Variations on a March from Bellini's I puritani (with contributions from Thalberg, Pixis, Herz, Czerny, Chopin, and, of course Liszt himself, who also provided his own orchestrations of some of the material.) Also included are Liszt's arrangements of Weber's Konzertstuck and Polonaise brillante, as well as the much more familiar orchestration of Schubert's Wanderer Fantasy. As an added bonus, an 18-minute-long fifth compact disc contains a Concerto in the Hungarian Style written by Sophie Menter (1846-1918), a late Liszt pupil whose playing he much admired. Only slightly Lisztian in style and playful at best, this far from significant curiosity may have involved some editorial collaboration on Liszt's part in 1885, and, interestingly, the orchestration was done by Tchaikovsky. As if this were not enough, Leslie Howard also offers a second performance of the Totentanz , this earlier and in part quite different version including an interpolated 'De Profundis' section. Altogether quite a compilation, then!

Many of these scores have been updated and corrected from a variety of manuscript sources, and the recordings themselves are richly supplemented by Leslie Howard's own punctilious annotations, in which his analyses contain helpful track number references. There seems, however, to be mystification on his part as to Liszt's plainsong source for the thirty-six-minute-long De Profundis, the composer in fact having actually based this somewhat meandering and sequentially repetitious work on a parody of Psalm tone IV6 (with its repeated notes) used for chanting Psalm 130 (Vulgate 129).

Most, though not quite all, of the more unusual content has been recorded previously - by such pianists as Jerome Lowenthal, Jeno Jando, Joshua Pierce, Philip Thomson, and Steven Mayer, although perhaps not in such exhaustively corrected versions as here. What is so impressive about Howard's performances, however, is his concentration on purely musical values rather than superficially virtuosic ones. This, however, is not at all to say that excitement cannot be encountered, as for instance in the grandiose conclusion to the Second Concerto. Overall, however, one savours these Liszt scores more for their substance; one is allowed to reflect on the composer's poetic impulses, on lyrical passages as well as on less often revealed harmonic rediscoveries. On the debit side, Howard's excellent playing, for all its technical command, can sometimes sound more literal than impetuous, without the rhetorical panache and flamboyant bravura of such grand-standing, dare-devil Lisztians as Martha Argerich, Sviatoslav Richter, and Earl Wild (or, if I may add one of my favorites, Solomon in his sonorous [quicker] 1948 Hungarian Fantasy recording).

The orchestral contribution under Karl Anton Rickenbacher, often full of gusto and with maximum colour elicited (the hunting-horn section of Totentanz, for example), is almost always commendable for its vitality, though there are some intonational problems in the Grand solo de concert. The reproduction, extremely full bodied and well balanced, is absolutely first rate.

Copyright © Igor Kipnis, September 10th 1999


Visit the Igor Kipnis web site for biography and illustrated discography


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Did you know...

  • Hyperion's Liszt Series fills 95 CDs with 1377 separate tracks
  • The total playing time is over 117 hours - that's nearly five days of continuous playing
  • The longest single piece is De Profundis (over 36 minutes); the shortest the Lyon Prelude (only five seconds)
  • Leslie Howard has played over sixteen thousand pages of score, estimated at over twelve miles of printed music, with a total number of notes in the region of something between nine and ten million
  • That to buy the complete edition will cost you around 1,400 pounds sterling or 1,700 US dollars

Visit the Hyperion web site


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