Tea for two -Leslie Howard 45th Wigmore Celebration and Burnett Thompson “The Age of Mayhem”
It may seem strange to talk about two concerts together but as coincidence would have it Leslie Howard ‘s 45th Anniversary Concert coincided with Burnett Thompson’s at the Church of the Annunciation,just a stones throw away.
Leslie is a founder trustee and co artistic director of the Keyboard Charitable Trust created by his mentor Noretta Conci-Leech.
Burnett has for many years befriended Keyboard Trust Artists at the Maazel Estate in Virginia of which he was an artistic director.
The only thing to do was to divide the concerts in half – I did the only thing possible and divided Leslie into two thirds and much to my sorrow Burnett a third.
As it turned out they both have much in common.
A complete command of the instrument and a sense of fantasy and colour of true musicians that actually listen to themselves!
Burnett of course in the jazz idiom and improvising with such intelligence and humour.
Rameau himself could not have made better imitations.
The art of improvisation and discovery has almost been lost in our quest to interpret the scores of the great masters from Bach to Liszt – who were both in their day the greatest of improvisers.
Leslie is a great interpreter and knows the scores intimately which in turn gives him great freedom.
Always having to keep on the straight and narrow of the path indicated by the composer in the many editions and changes in manuscript that have to be consulted.
The few lines in the programme written by Leslie immediately show his intimate knowledge of the composer and the scores which he puts over with the same intelligent wit that Burnett did just around the corner.
Beethoven’s description of his Sonata op 22 that “hat sich gewaschen”- has washed itself —meaning that he himself was very pleased with it.
Leslie is a mine of information.
His insatiable appetite made him nearly 50 years ago the great favourite of Guido Agosti in Siena.
Guido Agosti was one of the greatest interpreters of his day.A disciple of Busoni , musicians would flock to his studio in the summer months in Siena to learn secrets of interpretation that only he seemed to have the key to.
I well remember Leslie playing op 101 to Agosti and the great master being so impressed with his scholarship and complete command of the instrument.
Burnett had presented his programme :Reformation :Age of Mayhem.The project began in Washington DC and premiered in New York at the renowned Mezzrow Jazz Club.The CD will be released on 1st December.
It is a non-traditional look at the mid-16th century history and culture via the music of the time.
Medieval and Renaissance repertoire were complimented by Burnett’s own compositions.
A last minute recital date was invented by Sasha Grynyuk and Katya Gorbatiouk to perform as part of the London Town Chamber Fest in the Church of the Annunciation.
Only an upright piano was available but in Burnett’s hands he turned it into gold.
Full of shimmering colours and magic sounds where the music took wing and spoke so eloquently sometimes with Messiaen overtones and others with the mischievous humour of Rameau.Always in the magic jazz idiom that seemed to pour from his fingers with such ease.
Aided and abetted by bassist Dudley Phillips .Burnett with the dry humour of a Woody Allen.
I had to drag myself away with a heavy heart.
But magic awaited just around the corner too .
I arrived just in time to hear most of the Mozart Sonata K331 from the very comfortable divan in the foyer of the Wigmore Hall.
As Leslie himself says:one of Mozart’s best loved sonatas with all three movements in the home key of A major and with the complete absence of any movement in ‘sonata form’.
Fascinating to read in so few lines that Mozart very likely employed his ‘banda turca’ pedal with its simultaneous stroke of bass drum,triangle and cymbals!
Leslie played it with two hands and two feet in the traditional manner on the rather bright sounding house Steinway.Of course played in great style and the discovery of an original autograph manuscript in Budapest in 2014 led to several striking deviations from the familiar text.
Many great virtuosi of the past play the closing Alla Turca as an encore piece.Cherkassky used to play it with a teasing jeux perlé contrasting with the great roll of the left hand drums.
Of course Leslie played it in context and it was even more impressive following on as it should from the beautiful opening variations and charming Menuetto.
The sonata in B flat op 22 ,as Leslie again points out’ brings the sonatas of the so called first period to a very happy and robust conclusion. ‘I had never thought of the last movement being so similar in mood to that of op 7.
The opening theme and key points,of course, to the greatest of all piano sonatas :Beethoven’s “Hammerklavier” op 106.
I had heard Richter play op 22 many years ago in the Festival Hall and had not understood a critic complaining that much was inaudible.
I was just a student and had much to learn but now I understand that the great Russian school sometimes took Beethoven’s extremes of dynamics to its limit without actually thinking of the great architectural line.
That was not the case today where Leslie’s scrupulous attention to detail was allied to the overall shape not only of each movement but also of the whole.That may explain why the second movement marked’ Adagio con molta espressione’ seemed to move as an ‘Andante con moto.’It is marked in 9/8 but I found it just a fraction too fast as an Adagio in feeling although I am sure that Leslie has very definite reasons for chosing that tempo.
It was played with a beautiful cantabile sound and a bass that sustained without counting the beats.
The Menuetto bubbled along in a very simple way that made the Beethovenian outbursts all the more surprising.
The return after the ‘minore’ was like the return of an old friend.
The entry of the Allegretto was like a refreshing return to the countryside with the bubbling brook and feeling of tranquility.
As Leslie says in his notes:’there remains throughout the air of this being a good job well done.’
After the interval the age of Mayhem indeed reigned.
It was as though a new wind had blown into the hall from the moment Leslie sat at the piano to play Liszt.
Leslie has made a lifelong study of Liszt and after his historic 10 recitals here of all the works of Liszt he has recorded them on 100 CD’s ..he is in the Guinness book of records no less!
Here the piano was ablaze with subtle colours and a range from the almost inaudible staccato to the tumultuous sounds of a truly “Grand” piano.I know it is probably sacrilege,and may Leslie forgive me for even thinking it, but I could not help musing that some of these wondrous sounds surely he could have shared with Mozart and Beethoven too!
‘Trois Odes funèbres’ were written to be played together but as Leslie states they have never been published together and have rarely been performed as Liszt desired.
The first ‘Les Morts’ was prompted by the death at only 20 of his only son Daniel.The second ‘La notte’ was composed after the death in childbirth of Liszt’s first daughter Blandine.’Le triomphe funèbre du Tasse’ was a self portrait believing as Liszt did that his time too would not come until after his own death.
Some extraordinary playing of true mastery.
Like Rubinstein hardly seeming to move but the sounds he found inside that old box of strings and hammers were quite extraordinary.
Here was Leslie Howard the world authority on Liszt sharing with us with his searching mind and intellect ,some of the lesser masterpieces of this very often misunderstood and underrated composer.
It was only fitting that to contrast with all this morbosity even Leslie should let his hair down and show us the other side of Liszt.
The travelling virtuoso astonishing the courts of the whole of Europe with his amazing bag of funabulistic tricks that he pulls out of his magic bag one after the other.
A transcription I had not heard before based on Robert le Diable de Meyerbeer.The Cavatina and the Valse Infernale.
Leslie visibly exhausted as I expect Liszt himself would have been.
Ever generous and by great demand he let us hear his ‘sigh’ of relief.
’Il sospiro’ was absolute magic.
A wonderful wash of sound on which Liszt’s magical melody could float.An expertly handled tangled knot in the middle led to an ending that I would not be surprised was another discovery that this master musician had discovered on delving deep into the archives of the great composers.