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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14 [6:41]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Impromptu in G flat, D899 No. 3 [5:30]
Impromptu in E flat, D899 No. 2 [4:59]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Nine pieces from Bunte blätter, Op. 99 [15:08]
Frédéric CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Nocturne in A flat, Op. 32 No. 2 [5:31]
Ballade No. 1, Op. 23 [9:10]
David MATTHEWS (b.1943)
Four Portraits (2012) [13:24]
The Shorter Ring (2012) [6:00]
William Howard (piano)
rec. 23-25 February, 2014, Potton Hall, Suffolk, UK
NIMBUS NI 6275 [67:10]

William Howard, pianist with the Schubert Ensemble of London, here rewards himself for several decades of good work in concert and on record with an album of personal favorites. As chance would have it, all but two of the works date from 1827-1841. The recital is a pleasure, and Howard saves best for last.
You, like me, may not recognize William Howard’s name, even though you recognize his music-making. With the Schubert Ensemble, he has recorded a series of chamber music albums for Hyperion and Chandos, generally piano quintets and sextets; with Prunella Scales (Sybil Fawlty), he presented “Melodrama” concerts. There are recordings of Tavener and Judith Weir. He’s been around a long time, without really becoming a household name.
That’s not for lack of talent. Here, Howard interprets Schubert as well as you’d expect from a member of the Schubert Ensemble. The two impromptus are given excellent readings, and unusually, the ubiquitous G-flat is the more distinctive interpretation. It has the perfect blend of softness, buried drama and keyboard chops. Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso receives a gentle, even-keeled interpretation; would it be age-ist to call it “wise”?
Schumann’s Bunte Blätter, one of his less popular cycles, is represented by nine highly diverse selections, some of them bordering on Kinderszenen simplicity. A Chopin nocturne’s melody is well-voiced but I’m worried the accompaniment — which is pretty repetitively written — gets grating when played this “straight”. Chopin’s First Ballade is a Howard speciality, a work he performed in his first public recital. He’s lived with it so long that every decision feels mature, natural and right, although I am a little disappointed with one, the decision to hold back a little energy and power in the final two or three minutes. This is deliberate, for Howard is not an impulsive or hot-headed performer. In all other respects it’s a compelling account.
David Matthews’ Four Portraits is the first of two works written after 1841, and it’s a premiere recording of a piece from 2012. Matthews’ language is gently dissonant, but not enough to scare anybody, and his portraits are of four dear friends, including Howard himself. Actually, Matthews cheated: the most impressionistic and dramatic of the four works is a description of his friend’s garden. That piece (the third) might remind you of Mompou, Debussy or Szymanowski.
Best is truly saved for last: the encore, “The Shorter Ring” by David Matthews, is a six-minute compression of Wagner’s entire Ring cycle. It works as loving homage, but also cheeky parody. Are you exasperated by those “orchestral adventures” where “Ride of the Valkyries” is only a two-minute highlight clip? Here it’s hardly two seconds! Sneeze and you’ll miss “Forest Murmurs”. Matthews prides himself on the fact that every major motif tune, and recognizable bit is in the piece, even if only for a bar or two. It’s a riot, maybe my favourite Wagner parody since P.D.Q. Bach’s “Last Tango in Bayreuth” for four bassoons.
In summary, this well-engineered and well-produced release will be a pleasure for fans of Howard, fans of early romantic piano music and anybody who wants to listen to the Ring Cycle but only has five minutes to spare. After all, you’ll get the gist, right?
Brian Reinhart