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LISZT: Rarities, Curiosities, Album Leaves and Fragments. Vol 56  Leslie Howard: Piano Hyperion CDA 67414/7 4 discs 282m DDD



Just browsing through the eighty-odd pieces on this fantastic treasure trove of CDs is daunting, let alone playing the lot! This time, Hyperion have really provided the Liszt connoisseur with something to treasure for the rest of his/her life. They tell us that only the Hungarian Rhapsodies remain, so this is the final surprise package in the series. I will here limit myself to the larger pieces as some of the works recorded here barely exceed a minute in length. There are three symphonic poem transcriptions which sound so beautifully different when heard for piano alone.

The soft sounds of 'Orpheus' are beautifully played by Howard whilst the heroic and barnstorming 'Festklange' provides an opportunity to riot, the end is near! Howard's 'Mazeppa' is also gloriously played with the subtle transition from death to glorious victory superbly handled. The large number of Album Leaves make for some fascinating listening, their short seconds length leaving the listener almost gasping for more at times. There are also a few alternative texts of some Hungarian Rhapsodies, first thoughts and drafts which add to the mystery of Lisztian afterthoughts.

Another aspect that is given importance in this collection is transcriptions of other composer's music. From the characteristic ebullience of Rossini and Donizetti fragments to the stately majesty of Bach's Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor, there is much to marvel and to stand in awe at. The Variations on Rossini's 'Soirees Musicales' are particularly delightful. Sketches of the Hungarian Marches, Polish Fragments and other tantalizingly incomplete pieces also feature, these make up an essential part of this mindboggling collection.

Leslie Howard's playing cannot be faulted, obviously the shorter pieces are mere fragments and thus do not allow us to go into interpretative details but the symphonic poems do so a short analysis of each would suffice. Mysticism and beauty pervade 'Orpheus' with the beautiful theme subtly enunciated in keyboard roll-offs, one is reminded of the Lisztian legend such is Howard's commitment to the beauty and character of this work. Some critics have hailed it as the finest tone-poem Liszt ever composed so it is good to have it in a keyboard version.

'Festklange' is altogether more difficult to bring off, no doubt as it has its own fascinating germ-cell repetition that suits an orchestra better than a piano. Still, Howard is cheerfully ebullient and provides some dazzling fingerwork especially in the difficult concluding section of the piece where the staccato trumpets are simulated with awesome accuracy. I felt that 'Mazeppa' is the finest of all arrangements and the various orchestral parts are quite stunningly reproduced in a version that will take some beating! Another piece of considerable interest is the first version of 'Kunstlerfestzung', a notable exercise in virtuosity and completely different from the more familiar second version.

Other titbits which enticed me greatly where the fascinating fantasies on Rossini's 'Siege de Corinth', an obscure Raff piece, this shows the association between two great artists and last but not least, the superb rendering of 'Pazstzor Lakodalmas, a deeply spiritual offering from such an enigmatic composer. Fittingly, Leslie Howard ends this mammoth collection with a dazzling interpretation of 'Grand Valse di Bravura', surely one of the finest ways to say goodbye.

I shudder to think what editing and performance time must have been carried out to prepare this finished product but the staggering quality of the enterprise will only be apparent by listening to the set and appreciating the short notes, remarkably concise but fully detailed. The recording is up to Hyperion's usual exalted standards in this series, that is almost close to perfection as one could get.

An outstanding cover reproduction of 'Books' by Catherine Wood sets just the right atmosphere for an evening of listening to these evergreen piano works, a winner from the start. Well done Leslie Howard for bringing such joy to collectors of piano music, this will surely go down as one of the greatest piano undertakings of the outgoing century! Fifty six down and one to go, where are those Hungarian Rhapsodies?


Gerald Fenech




Gerald Fenech

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