This article in the series of Legendary Liszt Performers features a pianist for whom there are few recordings available publicly. Leslie Howard nevertheless belongs on this series because of his monumental project of recording all of Liszt's piano music. This was an effort that started in 1985 on the Hyperion label, and both Howard and Hyperion executive Ted Perry originally estimated it would encompass 48 CD's. Over time, new manuscripts kept cropping up as more people heard about the project. The scholarly community had been relying for years on a catalog of Liszt's works, created by musicologist Humphrey Searle (which is why you see Liszt's compositions given numbers like S.1, S.2, etc.). Leslie Howard soon realized that this catalog consisted of only half of the known piano works of Franz Liszt, so besides recording all of this music, Howard has also issued a new catalog that is far more complete.
You have to have a scholarly bent to do this sort of cataloging work, and Leslie Howard qualifies as a serious musicologist. Born in 1948 in Australia, he has lived for most of his career in London. He was a child prodigy on the piano who made his debut at age 13 performing Rachmaninoff's Second Piano Concerto. After he moved to London in 1972, he made a splash by programming ten concerts that consisted of all of the known original piano compositions of Liszt, excluding his numerous transcriptions of other composers' music (which would had doubled the number of concerts). The public flocked to these concerts because almost all of the music had never been performed before. The enterprise gave the public and music scholars a much greater appreciation of the vast amount of music composed by Franz Liszt. It caused one to think that from 1848, when Liszt stopped performing as a touring concert pianist, up to his death in 1886, Liszt did nothing but compose music.
This is untrue. Liszt lived a remarkably active life, directing a music academy at Weimar, organizing charitable concerts, teaching many gifted students who went on to professional careers, promoting many other composers, writing books, and engaging in two affairs with women he hesitated to marry. Why this was is a complicated story, just as his relationships with the children he sired from these liaisons was sometimes difficult. At the end of his life, he abandoned the secular world and undertook holy orders in the Catholic Church. Somehow in all this, he wrote an enormous amount of music.
When he was alive, critics found much to complain about in his music, and perhaps because of this, Liszt never allowed a good part of his compositions to be published. Hence the difficulty Leslie Howard had in corralling all of the piano music of Liszt into one place. The general criticism of Liszt, which extended well into the 20th century, was that he wrote some interesting music that will survive, but he wrote a larger amount of trashy music that will forever disappear.
The Howard-Hyperion project has turned that assertion upside down. The current assessment is that Liszt was a path-breaking composer who started out his career composing music in the style of Beethoven and Schubert, who were both alive when Liszt was a teenager and began composing. He never stagnated in his composing efforts, but always looked to innovate harmonically and architecturally, in terms of the structure of his works. By the end of his life, he was composing music that was similar to what Debussy would write 25 years after Liszt had died.
Among Liszt's works, it is now acknowledged there are several masterpieces that set Western music on new, exciting paths. This would include his oratorio Christus, his tone poems like Les Preludes (Liszt invented the tone poem concept), and his sole piano sonata, in B minor. We are going to look more closely at the piano sonata, which started out its career in 1854 by being denounced by many of the critics of the time. Liszt dedicated the music to his good friend Robert Schumann, who sadly was being confined to an insane asylum at the time the sonata was published. Schumann's wife, the noted pianist Clara Schumann, never performed the work and declared it "merely blind noise."
A very young Johannes Brahms fell asleep during a performance of the sonata by Franz Liszt himself - something Liszt never forgave. He took great pride in this sonata, having begun work in 1848 when he was finishing his career as a performing artist. We have his original manuscript, which has recently been published, and which shows us all of his emendations and rewrites, and the great care Liszt took on every single note, chord, rest, slur, dynamic instruction, pedaling, and so on. When he finished it, he must have had a sense that he had overthrown completely the classic sonata form that had reigned supreme in music from the time of the Baroque composers. He must have also known there was no need to write any further sonatas; he had said everything possible there was to say about the form.
We are going to listen to Leslie Howard talk about the Liszt piano sonata, and why this piece of music has such an important place in musical history.