The Master Speaks….Howard in Belgravia

Leslie Howard in Belgravia
Leslie Howard at St Peter`s Eaton Square London
It has been over forty years since the first time I heard Leslie Howard in the Palace of Count Chigi in Siena during the summer masterclasses of Guido Agosti.
Classes where generations of talented young musicians would flock to a place where musical integrity and a profound respect for the composers wishes was paramount.
The classes of Guido Agosti and Franco Ferrara.
I doubt there are few really great musicians of our generation that have not at some stage been influenced by these two quiet giants of music.
Quiet because both very rarely if ever still performed in public and their holy shrine the only place to hear and study at length with them was here at the Chigiana for three months each summer.
Ferrara struck down by a form of epilepsy that would only allow him to conduct if a doctor was present as in his recordings in the recording studio can testify with Mario Lanza or the Mahler 5 for Visconti’s magical film Death in Venice.
Agosti whose mentor had been Busoni had long dedicated himself almost totally to imparting his unrivelled musical knowledge to his own studio where the entire music world flocked every year to hear the most exemplary playing that somehow the Maestro could not produce in the impersonal concert halls.
Both had lain the stones for some incredible musical careers. Abbado,Mehta,Barenboim are just three of the many,none of whom have ever forgotten the musical experience received in Siena in their formative years.
As a young student I had heard of this marvel and determined to get there to see and experience it for myself.
And so in my first year at the Royal Academy fellow piano student ,Peter Bithell and I sneaked off to Siena to have a taste of this enticing elixir.
Little did we know that someone had spilled the beans at the RAM and we found to our amazement and surprise that instead of being told off we had in fact been given a helping hand in the form of Tobias Matthay Fellowships to allow us to spend the entire summer undisturbed by financial considerations.
There was a very popular athletic looking young Australian with blond hair and blue eyes that Agosti’s fabulously beautiful wife ,Lydia Stix,took under her wing immediately as the Maestro had found that this young man could also do no wrong at the piano .
Here was a student who was on the same wave length as the Maestro.
Someone totally prepared technically but also with a profound knowledge and respect for the scores he was interpreting.
I still remember (as it was a very unusual occurrence) Agosti complimenting this amazing young pianist on his superb mature understanding in an extraordinary performance of Beethoven op 101 Sonata.
This young man has gone on since in the intervening forty years to dedicate himself to a profound study and understanding of many neglected scores and in particular went on to take London by storm in a series of ten historic recitals at the Wigmore Hall of all the major (not necessarily well known) works of Liszt.
Recording on 99 CD’ s the entire output of Liszt for solo piano and piano and orchestra missing only one work that unexpectedly appeared at Sothebys for auction and then promptly disappeared into private hands.
An enormous enterprise that has earned him a place in the Guinness book of records!
Never forgetting his formative years he too has  dedicated himself to sharing his musical principles and has a following of remarkable young disciples whose careers he follows with great interest always ready to help with advice or even offering joint concerts.
Founder of the Keyboard Trust established with these very principles in mind by Noretta Conci-Leech and her husband John Leech .
Infact two of these disciples Mark Viner (at only 26 President of the Alkan Society and winner of the first Alkan Competition in Athens ) and Iyad I. Sughayer (one of the Middle East’s most promising young artists) were present today fresh from their triumphs in recent appearances for the Trust in the USA,Cyprus and Manchester.
I am talking,of course, of Leslie Howard who was appearing in London for the final concert in the tenth anniverdary season of The Eaton Square Concerts at St Peters.
As we have come to expect from this very distinguished musician a programme of some neglected masterpieces intermingled with an established classic.
Mozart Sonata in A Major K.331 ,Grieg Sonata op 7 Liszt Sarabande and Chaconne from Handel’s .Almira ( the set piece for the Utrech International Liszt Competition of which Leslie is President of the Jury as he is also President of the Liszt Society in London).Rachmaninov’s much negelected First Sonata op 28.
A beautiful porticoed church in the heart of Belgravia in Eaton Square.
A church full of light and perhaps even more importantly a full house with a very attentive and appreciative audience.
A magnificent Fazioli concert grand on a specially constructed podium in the centre of this magnificent building.
Magnificent looking but also sounding as this church has a remarkably fine acoustic .
The first thing that was immediately apparent was the beauty of the sound produced by Leslie in the opening Mozart Sonata .
A great sense of style but allied to a great sense of character showing off not only the serious but also the most humorous sides of Mozart’s genius.
Some of the opening variations played with an unusual sensitivity immediately taking one by surprise in a work so often played in a rather dry accademic way.
The acciaccaturas played with such a captivating sense of humour it was refershing how such a well known work could come to life in the hands of someone who had the ability and command to make the music really speak in an almost operatic way.
The recurring motif in the Menuetto a revelation in its whispered entrance interrupting the proceedings.
The Rondo alla Turca played with all the the infectious insistence that makes nonesense of those that rattle it off as if a virtuoso show piece instead of part of a remarkable whole.
A passionate reading of Grieg’s much neglected Sonata in E minor .
Glenn Gould,another great original thinking musician, was a great advocate of this Sonata but apart from Cherkassky I do not think I have heard it before in recital.
Full of subtle colours and sumptuous sounds and a forward movement and sense of architecture the belied the usual fragmentary nature of compositions of this underrated composer.
Following on before the interval with a rarity indeed in Liszt’s Sarabande and Chaconne S.181 .
A transcription for solo piano written in 1879 for Liszt’s piano student Walter Bache to play at the Handel Festival in England
A magnificent work full of subtle virtuosity and a gradual build up in the Chaconne that is as impressive as those of Bach or Handel himself.
Strangely neglected and recently set as the obligatory piece for the Utrech International Piano Competition .
Thanks to performances as those of Leslie Howard tonight it will surely take its rightful place in the piano repertoire.
A virtuoso performance indeed but always with a sound that seemed to unite all the fragments into a unified whole . No mean task but in the hands of a real musician it can take on a shape and power as it did today.
A beautiful sense of balance in the Sarabande from a pianist that did not seem to move a muscle .
Completely still , concentrating and listening in a masterly way to the sounds that he was commanding from the orchestra he had in his hands.
Rachmaninov’s much neglected First Sonata in Leslie Howard’s hands tonight was totally absorbing in a way that I have rarely heard before.
Always finding the sonata rather long winded almost Medtner like in it lack of melodic invention compared to the more popular works of Rachmaninov.
Here tonight Leslie Howard showed how wrong I had been.
Here was a masterpiece full of such colour and musical invention from the menacing recurring bass figuration to the throbbingly passionate melody in the beautiful middle register of the piano.
Combined with the most exquisite cantabile sounds never forcing the sound but by such a subtle sense of balance allowing the melody to sing out so naturally.
All this again in a sound that seemed almost to be similar to what we used to describe as the Philadelphia,Cleveland or Berlin sound.
There was an overall sound created that seemed to create a whole that gave great architectural meaning and shape to this misunderstood work.
Great feats of virtuosity were thrown off,en passant,part of the fabric but certainly only part and not the raison d’etre as is so often the case in Rachmaninov.
A totally satisfying performance that was greeted by a well earned standing ovation.
Rachmaninov’s Prelude in G sharp minor was just the right encore chosen by Leslie to thank this very attentive audience.
The heart rending deep bass notes resembllng much of the profound Russian feelings found in the sonata and the ending played in a very subtle and totally convincing way as too rarely heard these days .

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