Wednesday, December 02, 2009


“Music is the mediator between intellectual and sensuous life”

Beethoven (1810)

The prize for the performance of the year should surely be awarded to Leslie Howard for his playing of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier Sonata Opus 106 (November 8, Wigmore Hall). Intellectually, physically, virtuosically and emotionally, this was a towering performance. Recently a critic called op. 106 ‘grim’ but that must be a misreading or mishearing – monumental, visionary, mind-blowing, yes; but grim, no. And that was what was so moving about the performance; sinews there were but also heartstrings. The sheer beauty of the slow movement, which seemed unlikely ever to end (and one did not want it to end) is a miracle of warm, nocturnal music that seems sometimes to pre-echo Chopin. There is aggression in the bitter, brittle scherzo but it is offset by the virility of the opening movement and the colossus that is the final fugue that pounds our minds as if we are in some engine – room of the mind, pistons and cylinders crashing in perfect synchromisation. But man is there too, expressed in Beethoven’s love of humanity.

How was it possible that one man, one brain, one heart, could conceive all those late works, the quartets, the Mass, the grosse Fuge, the piano sonatas, the Diabelli Variations, without his senses caving in with the amount of continual concentration required to pour out this almost superhuman flow of meaningful beauty? 106 is the Mt. Everest of music and very few pianists can achieve the perfection that Leslie Howard produced. The great Schnabel, for example, was in awe of the work and went into retreat for weeks before attempting to play it. Even the Diabelli Variations seem a less daunting task (the Matterhorn perhaps?) but our intrepid Antipodean seemed to take the Hammerklavier in his stride, a virile exposition with a pulsing heart behind it all.

Leslie Howard never ceases to amaze. He has played and recorded every scrap of the music of Liszt and shares that master’s tolerance and relish for the troughs as well as the peaks of music. Otherwise he surely could not have followed op.106 with the third volume of Liszt’s Années de péleriuage (published posthumously). The centrepiece of the set is the wonderful acqueous evocation The Fountains at the Villa d’Este. But the others in the set are empty rhodomontade and meretricious – that word so near and so far from meritorious. And with that comment I salute Master Howard again, wishing him and all our readers a merry trishmas!

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