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Watching the 70-year-old man go at the piano keys with the ferocity of an unsupervised child and the precision of a surgeon was nothing short of fascinating, writes Nicolás Maurokefalidis.

This past Remembrance Sunday, Leslie Howard gave an astonishing piano concert at Wigmore Hall, playing works by Mozart, Beethoven and Liszt, a repertoire that reached both opposites of vicious intensity and calm reflection. Howard is the only person to have recorded the complete piano works of Franz Liszt, in a massive project that took him decades and which comprises 120 hours of music. He also holds the Guinness World Record for the largest recording series by a solo artist.

The vast understanding of a composer’s music that comes with a project like this helped Howard inform his choice of pieces for the exclusively-Liszt second half of the concert. Lesser-known works and transcriptions regained new life through his passionate playing.

Howard then went on to play Beethoven’s Sonata 11 in B flat, followed by an interval and Liszt’s Funeral Odes and two transcriptions from an opera by Meyerbeer, the Cavatine and Valse Infernale. His playing was remarkable on the Beethoven and the first two Funeral Odes, but the real highlight for me came with the third, Le triomphe funèbre du Tasse. Watching the 70-year-old man go at the piano keys with the ferocity of an unsupervised child and the precision of a surgeon was nothing short of fascinating. As with all great pianists, he made the playing seem entirely seamless, an incredibly difficult task understood by anyone who has ever gazed at a page of sheet music by Liszt. But Howard’s virtuosity did not shun deep emotion. Liszt wrote his Trois Odes Funèbres after the death of his son Daniel and daughter Blandine, and this tragic quality was reflected in the music and very much felt by the Remembrance poppy-wearing audience.

Howard in Budapest, 2000

The Valse Infernale with which Howard closed the concert was another captivating proof of his talent. By the end of the piece, Liszt’s intensity had caught up with Howard, and the fortissimo closing chords left the audience stunned for a few seconds, until responding with an equally long and powerful applause.

After a few minutes of uninterrupted clapping, Howard gave in and returned to the piano to play an encore, and again he defaulted to the composer he knows best, Liszt. He played Un Sospiro with a soothing effect, caressing the keys of the higher octaves with a deceiving appearance of simplicity. As the perfect counterbalance to the fortissimo repertoire it preceded, the encore was received with another round of applauses. Howard returned to the stage to bow one last time – his look was one of mixed kindness and exhaustion, and here was the spell briefly broken and one could glimpse at the man of 70 behind the virtuoso pianist. But nonetheless, the music had made its effect, and I left the concert hall with the theme of the Valse Infernale still resonating in my head.

Image credits: Queensland Symphony, Richard Wenn, John Gilhooly


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