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  • Nicolás Maurokefalidis

FETCH FEATURES | LESLIE HOWARD

Nicolás Maurokefalidis sits down with famed pianist Leslie Howard to discuss Liszt, London and being a performer in the age of artistic competitiveness.

I met Leslie Howard at his home in Southwest London last month to interview him about his Liszt recordings, his relationship with London and his thoughts on the city's artistic scene. He was kind and welcoming, paternal almost, and after our interview he took me to the local pub for lunch.


His home is full of bookshelves with neatly ordered sheet music, folders, folios and novels. A coffee table holds a collection of dictionaries and encyclopedias. But the main feature is the Steinway concert grand piano that stands majestically by the window - with the lid closed, it also acts as a work-table, with more sheet music and Leslie's diary on top of it. Opposite to the piano is a framed portrait of Franz Liszt, the composer to whom Leslie has devoted his life. His recording for Hyperion is the only complete recording of Liszt's piano works, an enterprise that took decades and a grand total of 99 CDs.


Leslie's views on piano playing could be resumed in a single mantra: "read the score accurately". He has maintained this view consistently, prioritising it in his own recordings and his teaching: masterclasses available on YouTube from as far back as 10 years show Leslie's insistence on this respect. Yet Leslie will just as readily condemn bad piano playing as he will admit he has no clue what the opera playing on Radio 3 is (as he did when driving me back to the train station). He was eager to discuss his love for Dickens, just as he would tell me about the J. K. Rowling novel he is reading, and how much he enjoyed the Harry Potter books. He is a man deeply attached to musical tradition just as much as he is modern and connected to the contemporary scene. After some time talking to Leslie, one can tell that even his harshest criticism of bad playing stems from a genuine love for music, a love he shares with others in his concerts and masterclasses, which he frequently gives to students.


When asked to be photographed playing the piano, Leslie jokes: "I'll pretend I know what I'm doing". Image credit: Nicolas Maurokefalidis

How did a project of such massive undertaking as your recording of Liszt's complete piano music change your relationship to the composer?

Deepened it enormously. Although I played a vast amount of Liszt in concerts, assembling it and organizing it to try and cover the whole thing was just such a major undertaking, because the Liszt complete piano music is a larger project than the complete Brahms plus Chopin plus Schumann plus Mendelssohn plus Schubert. What really delighted me the most was finding that, having recorded everything, how little there was that was unimportant. Considering how much music he wrote, the general level of it is rather excitingly good, a couple of pieces you think he might have had too much to drink before he sat down to write them. One of two things: there’s a piece called Bulöw-Marsch which has got four really beautiful bars, and a lot of drab stuff around them. I don’t know what he had in mind when he was writing it, but it doesn’t quite work. Of course he was an inveterate revisor of things. The interesting thing is that every time he revised something he added something and took something away, and the end result is that it’s important to know the other version as well. So I was lucky that the record company went along with my plan to record all of the versions of everything. But for my sanity, I’ve usually only played one of the versions of everything in concert, because if you try and memorise two scores that are similar but not the same, it’s so easy to go accidentally from one to the other. Just once I agreed to do it, because I was asked to play a concert in Hamburg and they wanted everything that Liszt wrote for the piano that had a connection with Goethe, and there are two versions of a Goethe festival march and they wanted both of them. That was a nightmare. On reflection, I would never do that again, or I would do it if I didn’t have to memorise it all, because it’s just a ridiculous extra thing.


You put a lot of emphasis on following the score when interpreting Liszt - how would that approach work with composers such as Mozart, whose scores have very little indication as to interpretation?

I think you should always do what it says on the tin first before you do anything else, before you even contemplate things like dynamics, pedalling, articulation, where you might have a doubt. The reason that Mozart doesn’t write much stuff on his scores is because he thought that any fool knew what to do. When he writes in his letters about pedalling and so on, you know that he cared very much about it, and yet there is not a single pedal direction in his complete works. So, it would be because he presumed that everybody knew what to do and he didn’t need to tell them. He doesn’t always write many dynamics, but by the character of his music, if you know enough Mozart of course, you end up knowing what to do. I hope nobody would ever attempt to play Mozart on the piano who has never listened to one of his quartets or one of his operas or one of his piano concertos or one of his symphonies, to understand the kind of language and the approach. To know that you don’t put slurs where he doesn’t write them. The score ends up telling you more than you think it does, if you follow it with some care. It’s not like Beethoven – Beethoven obviously didn’t trust performers at all, because he started to be very prescriptive. Haydn is a little bit in the middle, because most of the time he tells you nothing, very often he doesn’t even give you a tempo indication. And then, as he gets older, he starts giving you bits of information, and we even have a few pedal directions from Haydn, not many. But Mozart was a much more important keyboard player than Haydn was, and yet Haydn, of the two of them, is the only one that ever notated an octave glissando.


Why did you choose London as a place to live?

It had entirely to do with books, nothing to do with music at all. From when I was about this big [places his palm two feet above the floor], I wanted to be in London. I wanted to be in London because I wanted to go down every street that’s mentioned in any one of the stories of Sherlock Holmes. I wanted to see every single possible trace of any of the scenes in any of the Dickens novels. I wanted to see if there was anything left of the London that Shakespeare might have recognized. But I also wanted to be in the place which had suffered so badly in the Second World War and that I only knew from movies and from news reels. But it was mostly to do with my love of English. I went to an English public-school in Australia when I was a kid. I’ve always been fanatical about English language and literature – my degree is in English Literature, I’m very happy to say I never went to a music college. But that's why.


Do you think the city encourages artistic creation?

Despite itself. Because funding and support for the arts in this country is… well, it's not as bad as America, because Americans are the worst for it, but it's really quite poor when you consider how much money the arts make for this country. For the number of members of the population, England has so many concerts and so many musical public events. It seems a funny thing to say but it's absolutely demonstratively true that more people go to concerts in this country than go to football matches.


You know, there is an amazing amount of stuff available and yet it's very often being played by people who are very, very poorly paid, and sometimes not paid at all. Many of the people who go to concerts, such as the lunchtime concerts at St James’s Piccadilly or St Martin-in-the-Fields, where the artists are paid nothing. They don't know that, they just imagine that anyone who plays the public place gets paid for it. It's become very difficult – I would hate to be twenty trying to start to get a toehold in the music business. Firstly, it's a biased market, which means that for every gig that there is, there's at least a hundred people who'll step in and do it for less money than you'll accept. So it drives the price down, but it drives the standards up, because it's very competitive. And the general level of music study is very good. And the general level of musical performance, on the whole instrumental and vocal scale, is I think as good as there is anywhere in the world.


It's almost tragic. If a post comes up for, say a cello, in one of the London orchestras, and there are five hundred applicants for the job, and only one of them is going to get it. And you just wonder what we're doing. There's a danger of encouraging people into further and further study, because they can't get out of the study into the profession. And, in the end, a great many of them all end up teaching the next generation to do exactly the same thing. That's not sustainable for the vast majority because there are just not that many teaching positions. Even with all the students that we've got. When you think how many people in this country play the piano for a living, without also holding down a teaching post, it's a very small number. And when you compare that number to the number of people that enter every competition, you think: well, competitions, they may be a necessary evil, but most of the time I agree with Bartok, competitions are for horses. [laughs]


It's hard to know how people are to get it. Hell back in the day, you would do an audition for the BBC, and so there were things you could do that were stepping stones to success. And you got gigs on the BBC and you could use the fact that you were going to be on Radio Three sometimes, and you could write to a music club and say ‘would you care to listen to my lunchtime recital on Radio Three next Monday, and then would you let me come and play for your music society?’ And you used to get little jobs all around the country from music clubs, and now there's almost none of them left. Because they just found themselves not financially viable.

But it doesn't stop people from wanting to do it, because there's a great love for music out there. Every time you look at the audience of the Proms, you are reminded that there are people under the age of 80 who go to classical music concerts. And with enthusiasm as well, and who are a discerning audience and who know the difference between a good performance and a bad one, and are quite capable of showing extreme pleasure or extreme indifference. And I think that that's a good thing.


And we've got opportunities, soon to be diminished because of Brexit, for young people to play in orchestras and. English kids can't go in the European Youth Orchestra because if we withdraw from Europe we’re not going to be included. And all of the Erasmus exchange thing which, you would think, being so close to the places where nearly all the great European composers lived and worked, we would be so enthusiastic about exchanging culture between all the European countries, that we wouldn't hesitate to send our kids to study in Germany or in Italy or in France or in Spain or in Greece or in Poland or in Sweden, or whatever. And we don't do enough of it.


Generally speaking, I'm quite hopeful. Everybody goes through a period of becoming a grumpy old man, and thinking the world is going to hell in a handcart. But I’m always very agreeably surprised to find out how articulate so many young people are, and how well-behaved they are, and how they will open doors for people and give up seats for people; things that you thought had disappeared, and they haven't at all. There's an instinctive business of having good manners. You know, the customs change, but the essential, decent behaviour of one human being to another, seems not to, which is for me always very encouraging.


I think you can't be a good musician if you don't have a good relationship between yourself and the rest of the world. If you want people to come and listen to you, you have to be interested in their interests as well. You may be the boss when you're on the stage, but you are performing a service for them and you have got a great responsibility. You have a responsibility to the composer, because you may be performing something that they [the audience] may be hearing for the first time, and it may change their lives.


And what's more: if you play chamber music, this is where you also have to work out. I mean, the tremendous tensions because a room full of string quartets like cats fighting in a bag [laughs]. Until they calm down and realise that the spirit of cooperation is the thing needful, and that's what makes great performances. And every once in a while, someone writes to you and says: “when I heard you play that in 1973, that's when I decided I was going to do this.” And I thought, blimey, you know? Because you don't know what it ever is going to be that has an effect like that on people. But none of this will happen unless we are conscious of quite how important human relations are.