Leslie Howard in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

The thirty-sixth interview in my Classical Conversations Series features British concert pianist and Liszt specialist Leslie Howard. I met him at his home earlier this month for a most interesting chat.

Renowned concert pianist Leslie Howard has given recitals and concerto performances all over the world. His repertoire embraces the whole gamut of the piano literature from the time of the instrument’s inception to the music of the present day. As a soloist, and in chamber music and song, Howard is a familiar figure at numerous international festivals. With a vast array of more than 80 concertos, he has played with many of the world’s great orchestras, working with many distinguished conductors. Leslie Howard was born in Australia, educated there, in Italy and in England, and has made his home in London for more than thirty years.

Howard’s gramophone recordings include music by Franck, Glazunov, Grainger, Grieg, Granados, Rakhmaninov, Rubinstein, Sibelius, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and, most important of all, Liszt. For fourteen years he was engaged on the largest recording project ever undertaken by a solo musician: the complete piano music of Ferenc Liszt – a project which was completed in a total of 95 compact discs on the Hyperion label. The publication of the series was completed in the autumn of 1999. The importance of the Liszt project cannot be overemphasized: it encompasses world première recordings, including much music prepared by Dr Howard from Liszt’s still unpublished manuscripts, and works unheard since Liszt’s lifetime. Leslie Howard has been awarded the Grand Prix du Disque on five occasions and a further Special Grand Prix du Disque was awarded upon the completion of the Liszt series. Other Hyperion releases include the Tchaikovsky Sonatas; two double CDs of music by Anton Rubinstein; two double CDs containing – for the first time – all seventeen of Liszt’s works for piano and orchestra, with the Budapest Symphony Orchestra and Karl Anton Rickenbacher, and a double CD, The Essential Liszt, presenting highlights from the series. In 2002, a recording of New Liszt Discoveries was released, and a further CD was released in 2004 – the research is never-ending! Recent releases include the re-issue of the acclaimed Rare Piano Encores on Hyperion’s second label Helios – including Howard’s own operatic fantasy for piano: ‘Réminiscences de l’opéra La Wally de Catalani’, and several recordings for Merlin Classics, including the piano sonatas of Sibelius, Gade, Palmgren and Grieg, and the complete music for cello and piano by Rakhmaninov, Glazunov and Balakirev, with cellist Jonathan Cohen.

Leslie Howard’s work as a composer encompasses opera, orchestral music, chamber music, sacred music and songs, and his facility in completing unfinished works has resulted in commissions as diverse as a new realisation of Bach’s Musical Offering and completions of works by composers such as Mozart, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. Recent works include The Owl and the Pussy-Cat (an entertainment for flute, horn, violin and piano with narration), Kinderspiel (a chamber piece for children), several motets, a piano quintet and a concerto for marimba. Howard is also a regular writer and speaker on music, and broadcaster on radio and television, and he gives regular masterclasses in tandem with his performances around the world. Leslie Howard is a member of The London Beethoven Trio with violinist Catherine Manson and cellist Thomas Carroll. Since 1988, he is the President of the British Liszt Society, and he holds numerous international awards for his dedication to Liszt’s music.

In the 1999 Queen’s Birthday Honours Leslie Howard was appointed a Member in the Order of Australia [AM] ―for service to the arts as a musicologist, composer, piano soloist and mentor to young musicians. In 2000 he was honoured with the Pro Cultura Hungarica award, and in 2004 was decorated by the President of Hungary with the Medal of St. Stephen. In 2007 Leslie Howard conducted the English Chamber Orchestra in the Royal Festival Hall in the presence of the Prince of Wales.

2009 has been another busy year for pianist Leslie Howard. Tours of America, China and Australia and numerous engagements in Britain and on the Continent have seen him enthralling audiences with his customarily adventurous repertoire. In November 2009, he was invited by the Alkan Society in London to become their new president.

During the past year Leslie Howard has recorded four new CDs: Liszt New Discoveries 3 – a 2-CD set of world première recordings for Hyperion, bringing his celebrated Liszt cycle to a total of 99 CDs; 25 Études in Black and White – his own compositions recorded for ArtCorp; and the Rachmaninov Sonatas for Melba Recordings.

In addition, Leslie Howard has produced an Urtext edition of the Liszt Sonata for Edition Peters and a new reconstruction and orchestration from Paganini’s original manuscript of his fifth violin concerto for the collected Paganini Edition in Italy.

Leslie in action….

And the transcript for those who prefer to read my interview………

Melanie Spanswick: British concert pianist, Leslie Howard, is the only pianist ever to have recorded the entire solo piano works by Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. He’s won many awards and accolades for his playing, and I’m so pleased that he’s joining me here today at his home in London for a Classical Conversation. Welcome.

Leslie Howard: Hello, Melanie.

Melanie: Lovely to chat to you.

Leslie:  And to you.

Melanie: It’s a very hot day.

Leslie: It’s too hot.

Melanie: And getting hotter.

Leslie: I don’t know. When it gets north of 18 degrees, I don’t want to know!

Melanie: Well, I want to start by asking you all about your education, how old you were when you started, whether you come from a musical family, what was the catalyst.

Leslie: I suppose really the catalyst was – well there were two. There was a piano in the house on which my mum had had a few lessons when she was a teenager, but let’s just say it didn’t take; and my dad, who was a very enthusiastic listener, and had done a bit of musical hall singing in his years. But no musicians in the family.  I’m the first of four siblings, and we were all musicians of one sort or another. Don’t quite know how that happened.

Melanie: Did you start very young?

Leslie: I started to play when I was two. I could play anything that my parents could sing or pick out on an instrument. I could copy immediately, and anything I heard on the radio I could copy. The only thing that was difficult was learning eventually to read music properly, because, it slowed me down quite a bit, I remember I was four, and I thought, “This was surely not the way to go forward.” But it turned out to be all right. It was only a brief space before one thing caught up with the other.

Melanie: So which teachers, then, do you think were most crucial in your development?

Leslie: My very first one was a lady called June McLean. She’s in her late eighties now, and who had returned to Australia, where I was born. She’d been studying in France with Cortot. I’m very lucky, because I had a very very good technical grounding from the beginning. So, I didn’t have bad habits that had to be fixed later.

Melanie: That was my next question. How did you develop your technique? What did you do?

Leslie: Well, I was impatient to run before I could walk, because my hands were too small to play all the music that I wanted to play. I remember the first time I tried to play the Liszt Sixth Rhapsody, and I really could only just take octaves alright. And since there’s five pages of them at the end without relief, I thought that was – then I thought that was an impossible piece. Now it’s just very difficult like everything else. But that’s how it started. I had really to wait to be physically mature to do everything I wanted to do. My next really good teacher was my uncle Donald Britton who was head of music at my secondary school. I don’t really – got a performing diploma when I was 13 or something. And I supposed I thought I could play, and I rolled into my first lesson with him. And you know, I’d passed the audition, won the scholarship, all of this sort of stuff but then he just put a Haydn string quartet up on the music disk and said, “Play that.” And I was really thrown. Nobody had ever made me read a C clef before, let alone all four staves at once. I was determined not to be beaten by him again, so I went off and did the work. I learned how to do it. So, I turned up to the next lesson, within a week later. He put up the full score of Vaughan Williams’ Setting of the Hundreth Psalm. And I said, “Come on. This is a bit difficult isn’t it Sir?” And he said “No, no. Just the choral parts.” So reading the choral parts, hoping not to forget that the tenor had to be played an octave lower than what was written, got to the end of that without making too many mistakes and he said, “Very good. Now, play it again in D minor.” So it doesn’t matter what I did. He made me do something more, and convinced me at the right age, I think, that playing piano was all very well, but being a musician was much more important. And so then, of course, I learned how to do a counterpoint and composition, and how to play the organ and the harpsichord and the oboe – all of the things that a good music master makes you do when you’re at school and which helped later because I played the oboe in pit orchestras and did times as an organist and choir master. You do all of the stuff that makes your general musicianship stay alive. I have to confess that I haven’t practiced the organ properly for decades, but I still love to play it occasionally. The most likely thing I’m ever asked to do is to play for friends’ weddings.

Melanie: That’s quite fun though, isn’t it?

Leslie: It is, and that I do, you know, thirty minutes’ practice. It’s very naughty. I’m not recommending this as a thing to do, but all pianists should actually have a go at playing the organ. If nothing else just to learn what it is like to play Bach on an instrument he might have recognized, because one of these 9-foot Steinway thingies, I don’t think would have pleased him greatly at all. I never quite understood why we all do it, but I’m quite fond of playing transcriptions of things that were not written for a harpsichord or a clavichord. Such as, you know, one of those big organ works transcribed for piano, that’s quite a nice thing to do, but I’m not quite sure about doing things like playing The Well-Tempered Clavier on the piano in concerts. I know everyone studies them, and everyone should study it, but somehow the temptation to put in pianistic things like crescendos and diminuendos or accents or, the very worst habit of all, playing the subject and the surrounding texture. That’s just a bad habit which the piano encourages in a way, but the harpsichord absolutely forbids. So everyone should also learn to play the harpsichord and learn to read figured bass, all of that.

Melanie: How did you establish your career did you take part in competitions?

Did you broadcast for radios? I know you-

Leslie: I started broadcasting around when I was 13, and played quite a lot on television in Australia when I was a kid. Won a competition there which paid for me to go abroad to study, and I didn’t leave there until I already had a couple of degrees, was, I wriggled out of being turned into a fulltime musicologist, which was my professor and university wanted me to do. He said, “You can always play. You can always play. We need someone like you on the staff teaching people all about musicology.” I said, “Well actually no, I really want to go abroad and do the playing that I know I was put on this Earth to do, and do as much musicology as I can around the edges.” And I have managed to do that. Never really went to too many competitions. Went to a few and got a few prizes. I was usually regarded as too unorthodox. Mostly because of my repertoire choices, because if they said, “Play a piece of Baroque music,” I – my favourite was to play the Kuhlau Biblical sonata about David and Goliath. I wasn’t just going to play them a Bach Prelude and Fugue or a Scarlatti Sonata, but that’s the enthusiasms of youth, I’ve used because of having, in more recent years, sat on juries. Some jurists like to hear music they don’t know, and others absolutely cannot bear it because they think it makes it impossible for them to make a judgment. Which I think is really rather terrible. All of the competitions on which I’ve ever sat on the board, I have done my rather best either to fix it so the repertoire is free, or else fix it so that it forces people to learn interesting and less familiar pieces, because for the piano we’ve got the largest repertoire of any instrument by some colossal distance. And it really is extraordinary how good it is, and yet there’s a sort of core repertoire which keeps cropping up again and again as if no one’s ever looked any further. And even within famous composers. There are some Beethoven sonatas which are a rarity unless somebody’s playing all of them, but it’s a long time since I heard a recital in which someone said they showcased Op. 7. The number of young people now who – almost the first Beethoven sonata they learn is the last one he wrote, and I really think that ought to be heartily discouraged. I remember my other marvelous teacher in Italy, Guido Agosti, who in his classes – he’d see another 15 year old American girl, who was quite gifted, came and played Op. 109, and he really couldn’t deal with it at all, and he just closed the book and handed it back to her and said, “I’m sorry. I can’t do anything with this.” and she looked terribly shocked. He said, “Tell me. Do you not have any sonatas Beethoven wrote before this one?” and she had a rough stab, and it wasn’t bad, and he said, “How many of those have you studied?” “Oh, one.” “Well, when you’ve learned the other 29, please bring this one back.” But he was quite right.  And I’ve – I don’t have my own students really. I just teach master classes, because I travel too much as a player. But whenever I have any chance to influence what people put in their repertoire – of course they’ve got to play Beethoven sonatas and so on, but start at the first one. Learn – if you want something that looks good on a programme, play the three sonatas from Op.10. You’ve got to be a proper musician to do that, or the three from Op.31, or the two of Op. 27, which go together fantastically well. But try to create a repertoire that makes you look a little bit different from everybody else, because all of these people who do competitions where you have to do a prelude and fugue, four studies and a Beethoven sonata, they all play the same stuff and there isn’t the work out there for them. And they get concerts as a result of winning a competition, but those concerts are predicated on the winner of the competition, not on the person. So when the competition comes around again, somebody else gets those concerts and establishing yourself in the business is a lot harder. I was very lucky. Firstly, to be asked to make recordings when I was only in my mid-twenties. And that was also back in the day when you did the BBC audition, which you’d eventually pass. And I used to get a dozen broadcasts a year and you’d go into a BBC studio – there aren’t these things anymore- specifically designed for performing, like the concert hall, broadcasting house, which no longer is a concert hall. All the other marvelous studios like Pebble Mill, I did all the BBC studios up and down the country. I was being asked to do this because I actually pursued an interesting repertoire. If all I had to offer was the Appassionata Sonata, I would never have got it. And it wasn’t just because I was playing Liszt but because I was playing a lot Haydn and a lot of lesser known Beethoven and other lesser known composers, but things that – things that people play now but they didn’t play then, like the Rachmaninoff sonatas, in the 1970s they were fairly rare, especially the first one. The Glazunov sonatas, which I recorded in 1975. Would love to do them again now, but I couldn’t possibly listen to that. I don’t listen to any of my records anyway, but I’m not alone in that. Most performers don’t, but some do.

Melanie: Tell us a little bit about the Liszt project, because it’s quite an achievement to record all solos works by Liszt.

Leslie:  Well that started really because I was completely hooked on him from the first time I heard some of his orchestral music. It had nothing to do with piano at all. I heard a live performance of the Faust symphony when I was about 13, and I just thought, “This is the most amazing piece.” And so, I started looking for his music and found out how much there was that wasn’t piano music and, you know, took a close interest in all of it. I played his organ works, got involved in conducting some of the choral pieces, and got busy with him. And the more I looked, the more interesting a composer he became and I kept on reading the odd rude remark written by all sorts of musical pundits sand it usually transpired that what they really didn’t like was the way young piano players played Liszt music rather than Liszt music itself. So they blamed him for writing the music that made them play that way. But I don’t think Liszt music actually asks you to play in a vulgar or nasty fashion. It sometimes comes as a surprise when you tell people there’s well over 3000 pieces of one sort or another for all sorts and traditions of instruments or voices of which 1400 are for piano. But out of these 1400, there’s about 50 that are in standard regular circulation, and a lot of the performances don’t actually show any depth of understanding of the composer at all. And I think people need to look a bit wider. It distresses me that people want to play the Sonata – either as the first piece of Liszt which they learn or it’s the second piece of Liszt which they learn. And you think, “You know, you would play this piece a lot better if you studied the Grosse Concert Solo, or the Scherzo and March, Weiner Klagen Variations. You know, there’s lots of the Sarabande and Chaconne, Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, and there’s a surprise to find out that Liszt wrote more quiet pieces than loud ones, more slow pieces than fast ones, and many many more of his pieces end softly than quietly, than loudly. There’s no excuse now. I’m happy to have played some part in this.

Melanie: And it goes into 99 CDs, is that right? The recordings?

Leslie: It does. Well I beat the Liszt edition, which is in Budapest, to recording this music before they published it all. Well they started printing these volumes in 1968 but it’s been quite slow. It’s a good edition, but I’ve just always wanted some of the – instead of starting with the things everybody had in their collections. They really should have started right in with the things that you couldn’t find anywhere. That would have been better, and then they would have had more subscribers and would have sold faster. They would have been better financed. But to start with, they wanted to print only the final versions of Liszt music. Anyone who’s had a good look at Liszt music will know that he was a veteran reviser of his works. Sometimes it’s because he wanted to thin it out technically. Sometimes it’s because of the much increased heaviness of the piano touch. By the time he got to his middle life the instruments that he played really was actually on stage. Most people don’t remember that his great career as a solo player only lasted for about 9 years and that he gave up in 1847. So that’s before the first Steinway was built by some distance. The biggest pianos that he would have played by then would have been the best 7 foot Érard and he would have played a Broadwood that went for six and a half octaves. By the end of his life, of course, he’d been playing piano or teaching on pianos at any rate, which we would find pretty similar to the instruments we have now. Including the piano with the sostenuto pedal from Steinways, in 1883. It’s trying to recreate the sort of playing that he must have been able to do is quite hard, because it’s clear that all of the things with the super human difficulties that he wrote when he was in his early 20s really didn’t cost him any physical effort at all. They cost him a great emotional effort. There’s a famous account of him fainting, and actually they published an obituary of him in Paris when he was only 17. He fainted again when he was 20 when he was playing his concerto for two pianos, Grosses Konzertstuck on themes from Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, a piece which then disappeared from view and wasn’t published until the 1980s – which I happened to edit, but I recorded that for the BBC with Ian Munro in 1987 or something, and although it’s a taxing piece there was no sign of anyone fainting. When he last played it, he had to be carried off on a stretcher. So he must have gotten very involved with what he was doing. For the rest of it, it was the thrill of looking for things that you knew existed but they were not found. On the recordings there are 300 pieces, which at the time were not published. Quite a few of them have been published since. The new Liszt edition very kindly has decided that if it’s in my recording of Liszt, that they better see what they can do about printing them. So they changed their mind about not printing only one version. Because people kept asking them, people kept saying, “Excuse me. Howard’s recorded this piece. Which volume can I find it in?” So I’ve given the project a bit of a kick in the backside, so they’re producing 13 supplementary volumes. That’s how much extra music there is from what they were originally intending to publish just for the piano solos.

I don’t think I’ll ever live long enough to see the rest of their edition. At this rate, I think it’ll be going for another 250 years before they get everything out. That does happen with collective editions because people get bogged down with various bits of scholarships, and it’s also very expensive.

Melanie: But you’re writing two books on Liszt, currently?

Leslie: Trying to!

Melanie: Could you tell us a little bit about them?

Leslie: Trying to do more than I can manage really, because in between I’ve produced quite a lot of editions, you know critical editions with proper scholarly apparatus and so on, of Liszt and also of Paganini, just things that I’ve learned enough about, but they take a long time to do. And I started them with a friend of mine in 1991, a man called Michael Short, who’s in the Liszt society, and he does all of the documentary research and I do all the music research and analysis of manuscripts and what have you. But we’re producing a thematic catalog of the complete works and we’re about – well the paperwork bit of it, getting the information, we’re about 90% done putting the themes into the computer which is an endless task and a thankless one. I’m about halfway there. It’s been going for over 20 years, but of course at the beginning – the beginning was before they invented decent music writing paragraphs on the compute. There were a couple, but they were impossible. But I know some people swear by Finale, and I swear by Sibelius, I presume for no better reason that I finally learned how to do it. So when I did the Paganini Fifth Concerto, I actually did the setting that’s reproduced in the edition which saves a lot of trouble as long as you don’t make any mistakes and you do have to show it to other people.

Melanie: I was about to say, it must be edited or it must be looked at.

Leslie: Well you – it’s like you need another pair of ears to listen to you play occasionally and tell you a straight from the shoulder report. One of my dearest friends is my old teacher that I came to London to study with Loretta Conti, and she was not a musicologist type of teacher. She was much more instinctive, but absolutely on the ball. You’d play something, and she’d say, “It’s very nice, my Leslie, but it’s a little bit boring.” and because I was very keen when I was in my 20s. Just get this music out there and play it, and people, you know – but I’d forgotten a few things while I was doing it, like how to get it to pass over the foot lights into the souls of the listeners, and she was marvelous at curing me of that. I used to be very straight-laced, because you know it really is important. You’ve only got 25 minutes, you, the Sibelius Sonata and the people, if you want to sell it to them, it’s got to be done then. You can’t do it on a promise of having written a nice programme note, it’s actually got to grab them when you play it. So that’s what I tried to do, and I hoped to succeed more times than not. You never can tell, and you do need other ears and you do need other eyes when you edit from a manuscript. My eye, looking at this manuscript, is I think pretty good. Because if you show a manuscript to someone who’s never looked at one, they take one look and well – how can you make head or tail of that? So if you’ve never seen a manuscript of Beethoven’s and you have a look at his handwriting of the Op. 111 Sonata you can only marvel at the genius of the engraver who made the first edition, that he got through that nightmare. And yet when you get used to working with Beethoven’s handwriting, it’s not so bad. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t problems that are not easily solved. I occasionally spend a morning with Jonathan Delmar. He’s doing a tremendous job editing Beethoven, but a man of proper conviction and decent humility who – when he’s got the job done – instead of just rushing into print with it, he goes to people who’ve lived with the music often for longer than he has  – but we haven’t done the same work as he has – and just to say, “You know, is there any way that this slur can possibly be here because it seems wrong and it’s not in anyone else’s edition but it is in the manuscript so is it a mistake or do we put it in?” He questions himself and either you rattle back and reinforce his opinion, or you suggest “Well actually, it might be right, but it might be right for another reason.” He just gave me some extraordinary fingering which crops up on an odd page for the piano part of Beethoven’s Op. 70 No.1 Trio, and it’s not in the printed edition, but it is handwritten in a copy of it by Beethoven and it’s ridiculous fingering of the most unorthodox nature, but if you use it, it works. You just think, “You know, that’s not the fingering Czerny would have written for it.” But let me try this, and you try it and you think, “Well, it’ll do”, because it forces you to put the right fingers in the right place to make all the appropriate articulations and accents and so on. And sometimes you can’t do all of the composers fingering like that, but it’s very much worth having these things and to have a look why a composer sometimes writes something odd. And you’ve got to be very careful about dismissing it as the slip of the pen, and sometimes it must be. But if you’re doing a proper edition, you’ve got to show them what was there and if there are differences between the manuscript and the edition and we don’t have any of the information about what took place in between, like a corrected proof copy or a letter, which we sometimes have where somebody says, “Well, please add that bar at the beginning of the slow movement, Which we have of Beethoven for the Op. 106. You know, that’s tremendous when you can do that. In the case of the last cello sonata, we have a copyist manuscript which is more important than the original manuscript in several particulars, because in that Beethoven added four more bars in the beginning of the last movement, and we wouldn’t be without them, would we? So, I occasionally have to give little talks to young music students about how it’s not just a question of going down the street and buying it. If you really want to know how this piece was put together, actually see if you can find out how it was put together, see if there is a manuscript that you can look at, because it will force you to think about the real way this music came to be, and that might actually help you in your playing. It’s not just because you’re just there to discover that there might be a wrong note in bar 33 that nobody’s found before – though that sometimes happens – It’s just to immerse yourself in something of the creative process behind the piece and – I tell people to do that, to have a look and see what the composers were writing at the same time and see what other composer are writing at the same time your composer might have known. Above anything else, it’s fun. It’s as entertaining as following any soap on television. To know – well sometimes people look at their subject very narrowly, and of course there’s so much information in this world about so many things, it’s harder and harder to be a Renaissance man. But you know, music isn’t created independently of social history or political history sometimes, and it’s worth it to know what it was like, to find out what was the temperate like in concert hall. You know, what did it smell like?

Melanie: And you really recreate it.

Leslie:  Well, you know, you can’t actually do this – you can’t do everything, but it’s worth knowing as much as you can about the circumstances and knowing – as people quite often forget- that a sonata that was premiered say by Mozart, would very often have its movements played separated one from the other by other events going on in the evening, same with the string quartets and symphonies and concertos. And if people liked it, they might clap in the middle of a movement and they might give the way for it to be repeated.  It’s a completely different way of doing things from how we play it now.

Melanie: I was about to say, quite different from today.

Leslie: Well, we’re so reverend -as we should be – in the face of some of these pieces, but we all know that even a work so magnificent as Beethoven’s Violin Concerto, just in case the audience had fallen off the middle, the violinist of the first performance gave some impromptu improvisations imitating the sounds of farm animals on his instrument, just to keep the public amused before he went into the slow movement. You know, that’s barbaric. But they were frightened the people wouldn’t stay paying attention to this concerto which was of course for its time far in a way the longest violin concerto ever written. And it’s one of those pieces that’s just perfect, and you know if it could go on for another 20 minutes, you’d be quite happy. It’s you know, but Beethoven was taking risks. He took colossal risks with all sorts of things. He had this tremendous strength of knowing that he was right, and it comes out in his letters – even when we was wrong of course. Because when he was wrong, he was magnificently wrong. He was magnanimous in his apologies afterwards if he offended somebody, but it would have been like walking a tightrope to be his friend. He’s – you know, if anyone said the wrong thing or did, in his eyes, the wrong thing, he would be further than rude as you could ever possibly imagine anyone being, and then he would calm down.

Melanie: What about future concerts and recordings? What have you got coming up?

Leslie: The next recording is one I did in Italy, and it’s with a friend of mine called Mattia Ometto, and we recorded all of the two-piano music by Reynaldo Hahn. Now, Reynaldo Hahn, people I’m sure these days know some of the songs, but there a marvelous piano quintet, and there’s a piano concerto, and there’s all sorts of good stuff. Very interesting composer who could also sing and in fact recorded a couple things himself, and he came from Venezuela, but he’s essentially French. But you know, there’s something extra in there, and he was admired by people as different as Poulenc and Stravinsky. You don’t have to spend too much time before you think, “This man writes not only marvelously crafted very agreeable music, but quite individual music as well.”  So, that’s the next one out. The last one out is the Rubinstein piano quartet for Hyperion, and they were first recordings. Anton Rubinstein is one of those composers that everybody knows about. He’s mentioned in every musical history, especially if you get to the end of the 19th early 20th century and you’re talking about musical education, he’s there. You know, his plan for the courses at St. Petersburg Conservatory, is still used. Nothing wrong with it, you know, but all of his music- of which there is a great tide I have to say – but you know it’s much harder to revive that, and yet I think it’s worth it, well worth it. We did get a concert performance of his opera The Demon a couple of years back, but some of the critics were a bit sniffy about it. But, you know, without The Demon you just wouldn’t of heard of Eugene Onegin. It would have been completely different. So, Rubinstein’s creation of Tamara in The Demon has some serious bearing on Tchaikovsky’s treatment of Tatiana in Onegin, and Rubinstein’s concertos – well, imitation being the sincerest form, as they say, you know? The cadenza in the beginning, in Tchaikovsky First Concerto is so clearly taken from the cadenza in Rubinstein’s Fourth. It’s obviously a homage. It’s not a steal, and he crops up all over the place – Brahms said some rude things about him, but copied him, used bits of his music in all sorts of places including his Second Piano Concerto. Clara Schumann was rude about him and said all of his music will be forgotten. She was quite sure that none of hers would be. She might have been wrong there. She was a very strange lady, but anyway composers like Anton Rubenstein please me a great deal and next year will be the 150th anniversaries of Sibelius and Glazunov, and of Nielsen for that matter, but I’m trying to get in here first. So I’m doing Sibelius and Glazunov Sonatas at the Wigmore in September. I’m doing them at a few festivals on the continent before then and, I love that stuff. It’s marvelously written. Almost nobody knows that Sibelius wrote piano music, but there’s over 200 piano pieces. People don’t play them really.  It’s like the Dvorak piano music there’s more than 200 pieces of his – or the Rossini piano music, more than 200 pieces.

Melanie: The Nielsen, I used to love playing Nielsen.

Leslie: Well, the suite by Nielsen I haven’t heard played live since John Ogden did it and that was a while ago. They don’t play the 3 pieces of his Op. 59 which were very thorny, but absolutely worthwhile. But people aren’t adventurous enough. They will admit that Nielsen’s symphony is good, but then they think they’ve done the job there. You try and say “Well. actually you know, did you go and see Maskarade when they did it at Covent Garden”, He writes operas?” “Well, yes” That’s one for the hard things to do with students too. Even when you put concerts on free to get them to go to them. To get a piano player to go to a string quartet concert or a violinist to go to a song recital is apparently a very hard job and I’ve never understood why. Why wouldn’t you be curious to know what else Faure wrote apart from that fiddle sonata, you know? You don’t think that might have some bearing? You know, if you play a Mozart piano concerto without ever having seen The Marriage of Figaro, I think you’re an idiot. It’s not as if it’s impossible to see it. You can see all these things on DVD if you can’t afford the prices down at the opera house, but there’s more of this stuff available than ever and in quality performances and productions. So, there’s really no excuse. And how can you play Haydn piano sonata if you don’t know his trios or his quartets?  You can’t. But well you can, but not in an informed way let’s say. I like people will be informed. Then they can be spontaneous and original, but first be informed.

Melanie: What does playing the piano mean to you?

Leslie: It’s not the only way I think about music. For example, I’d never compose for the piano unless I compose like in the old days with pen and paper, and these days straight from the computer. But the piano is a great place to go when I want to improvise and when I want to play just to myself. And when I do want to play just to myself, it’s frequently not to play piano music. It’s mostly either to play bits of operas, or ballets, or string quartets or musicals or songs by Cole Porter. Nobody’s ever going to get me to sing any of these things. They would be too awful, but I get a lot of pleasure from older popular music. I think popular music today just isn’t a patch. The general standard of musical nuance that popular composers had in the ‘30s ‘40s ‘50s- now they were properly educated people. They knew what a consecutive fifth was and how to avoid it. They knew how to make modulations. They knew how to manipulate the most amazing harmonies. From – Everybody from Jerome Kern to Duke Ellington, there’s just buckets to learn from those people, and pop music on the whole doesn’t have you – certainly doesn’t have me- agog with curiosity, which is where I’d like to be with most music. What’s it going to do next, isn’t that amazing, isn’t that extraordinary? Half the time you know perfectly well what they are going to do next. When I say next, I mean for the next 5 minutes. And you just think, “A little bit of imagination would have helped there.” And I’m not quite sure where the pop group as this sort of cool thing that has developed so little over the last 40 years. You’d think there would have been room for a lot more. I know around the fringes there’s a lot more going on, but you know the mainstream stuff seems to be very very conservative. It’s extraordinary, isn’t it? And harmonically less interesting than before and rhythmically much less interesting than before. When The Beatles came out, they wrote songs that started in 4/4 and went to ¾ in the middle. They did musical things that kept you absolutely on the edge of your chair, and very intelligently written and nicely harmonized, and they used a string quartet. All of the things they did – and it wasn’t an experiment. It was actually a musical idea that they put into practice. I think there’s been a lot less of that since, and that’s really a pity. But, that’s also why their stuff is still appreciated and bought and recorded and rerecorded -

Melanie: and enjoyed.

Leslie: Yes. Well, most people who around the age of – to have heard them, that’s 46 years ago, isn’t it? It’s a while. 44, sorry. That’s strange. You know, I was fascinated by listening to old recordings of classical music too, because we forget sometimes that it wasn’t always played the way we play it now. There are things that I remember laughing intemperately at Alfred Cortot’s wrong notes. You can’t do that, when you think about the way they used to record those things. You know, it’s amazing. If somebody played a wrong note or fluffed a pedal or made an extraneous noise or what have you, because we’re not allowed to do that. You can’t leave a wrong note on a record. Because you know there is a difference in giving a solid performance and what you do in a concert, concerts and recordings. The hardest thing in recordings is to try to recreate what you do in a concert hall. You’ve got to stop and analyze what you do in a concert hall, and sometimes you’ve got to watch out because you can play all the right notes because you’re a bit timid about making mistakes in a recording season and what comes out is a document. You know, all the notes ladies and gentlemen. We didn’t have enough time to put the music in. A lot of recordings, because of the constraints and people being frightened and there not being enough time. When Rachmaninoff recorded a double sided ten inch 78, he had a whole day or even two days to do it. So he could stop. The machine would be off. He could practice for an hour and then do a take. He also got paid even, even in strict monetary terms, more for one side than most people get for making five CDs now. That’s without allowing for the difference in the currency rate. So, add two zeros. They knew what they had. They knew every time he went into a studio, he was going to make a recording that was going to sell, because he was simply marvelous and I’d like to see anyone brave enough to say that his recordings are not marvelous. I think he’s the best player who recorded. Who knows what his records might have been like? But we know about his records and also he knew how to work in a studio. On most recordings from that era, the matrix number gives the take number at the end, and we’d be embarrassed if all our take numbers were published. Some of it is because you had to avoid the bird flying around inside the church or the tractor outside or the ambulance siren or whatever or mostly the airplane, because we don’t really have soundproof studios. But, you look at all of those Rachmaninoff recordings and the number of issued takes that are take 1 or take 2 – it’s just impressive to a degree. It means he didn’t record it until he knew he was going to do the performance. So, if he ever takes more than that, you can get a peculiar idea of what a bad day at the office for him might have been like. Most notably, his transcription of the Scherzo from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think the issued take is 21, but that’s by many many numbers more than the next one down, which I think is seven. But, even those recordings of his concertos, each side is mostly take 1 or take 2. It’d be nice if I could do that. But then of course you’d have to be allowed to record like that and play like that, because this has got to be one straight honest performance of five minutes of music and that’s it.

Melanie: Thank you so much for joining me today.

Leslie: It’s a great pleasure.

Melanie: Thank you.


About Melanie Spanswick

Classical pianist and writer. I love to Tweet and Blog and I love to play the piano too.
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One Response to Leslie Howard in conversation with Melanie Spanswick

  1. Hello just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know
    a few of the pictures aren’t loading correctly.

    I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.

    I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same outcome.

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