Leslie Howard is, of course, best known to the wider record-buying public as a world authority on the music of Liszt (and not just the piano music – he conducted a very fine account of Liszt’s oratorio Christus a few years ago in Leicester). He is also a noted authority on the music of many other composers, including Rachmaninov (with Robert Threlfall, Howard identified over 1,000 errors in the published versions of the Fourth Piano Concerto), and for his first recording devoted entirely to Rachmaninov, he delivers performances of the composer’s two piano sonatas which are wholly exceptional.
In terms of technique, nothing is beyond this pianist (Howard made his London début with Rachmaninov’s Third Concerto), but as with everything he does his performances are driven by a sensitivity born of a combination of his own work as a composer and scholar. Howard’s very readable booklet notes show that he wears his scholarship lightly, but it is in the performance that his qualities are fully in evidence.
The structure of each work is different, posing challenges of no little difficulty: the late-Romantic Russian piano sonata genre (Balakirev, Tchaikovsky and Glazunov, for examples, notwithstanding) contributed much to the repertoire, which is still not fully appreciated, Rachmaninov’s examples bringing the series to a magnificent end. As with much of his music, those seduced (or put off) by Rachmaninov’s genius for melodic invention are often unaware of the music’s deeper qualities. While yielding to no one in his revelation of Rachmaninov’s thematic beauty or virtuosic demands, Howard subtly reveals the composer’s finer points. For example, the growing crescendo in the finale of the D minor Sonata, reserving the fullest tone for the last pages (so many pianists climax too soon); the delicate and ingenious changes of dynamic and phrasing in the slow movement of the B flat minor Sonata (here, Howard unhesitatingly prefers the original version); and the varied nuances in the exposition of the opening movement in that work – all contained within absolutely right tempos.
These performances throughout are shot through with such insight. Apart from the two sonatas, Howard includes the three short pieces Rachmaninov composed in just two days in 1917: although untitled, and lacking an opus number, the proximity of their composition strongly implies they should be heard together. He also includes what might well be the first recording of the composer’s version for solo piano of the ‘Nunc dimittis’ movement (No.5) from his Vespers, Op. 37, which transcription was made in 1934 as a preface to a contentious book of reminiscences.
These four short pieces (far less well known than many of Rachmaninov’s other solo pieces) make a most valuable adjunct to the piano sonatas, Howard’s performances of which are, to my mind, the finest yet issued of these major works. The recording quality matches that of the performances.