MUSIC / A world premiere every day: Leslie Howard has set aside 15 years to record every note of solo piano music Liszt ever wrote. Mark Pappenheim reports

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We're sitting alone in a church in Surrey. Leslie Howard settles down at the piano and introduces the next piece. It's a Hymne a St Cecile, transcribed by Liszt from a piece by Gounod scored alternatively for violin, piano, harp and organ or for woodwind, brass, double-basses and harps. 'A happy thought,' Howard observes, 'but, as you can imagine, it's never been performed since.'

Liszt's transcription appears to have fared no better. Howard holds out a photocopy of the composer's original manuscript, complete with his printing instructions to the engraver, signed and dated 3 June 1866. 'None the less,' he notes, 'it never got printed. It just stayed in a desk in Rome until it eventually found its way to the Liszt Museum in Weimar, whence I got hold of it.'

Even Liszt himself may never have played it. As Howard explains, every work he ever performed in public has been documented, and there's no record of this piece. If he did play it, it was only in private, or for a few of his close, personal friends. 'So apart from the Pope,' he quips, 'you're the first person ever to hear it' - apart also, of course, from the recording crew buried away somewhere in the church crypt.

For, with or without audiences, world premieres are almost an everyday event in Leslie Howard's 15-year project to record every note of solo piano music Liszt ever wrote. At an estimated 70 discs, with an average length of 75 minutes each, his complete Hyperion Edition will almost certainly win the record as the largest recording project of a single composer's output ever undertaken by a solo artist. And, with Volume 20 (a two-CD set of the Album d'un Voyageur) now out and Volume 35 safely in the can, he has reached the halfway point in a project he expects to take him through to the year 2000.

As Howard reveals, it all began when he first heard Liszt's Faust Symphony as a budding young pianist back in his native Australia. 'I was 14,' he recalls, 'and I thought it was the best piece I'd ever heard. And then I heard the B minor Sonata and I just knew I had to go out and buy the music and play it the very next day.' A little later he came across a catalogue of Liszt's complete works in the back of a biography - 'and I was fairly blown away by the size of the thing. My God, I thought, I've never heard of any of this stuff. It can't be that he only ever wrote two good pieces and 3,000-something awful ones. So what's happened to it all?' As the belated premiere of the Hymne a St Cecile attests, he's still busy finding out.

For, as well as being the least known, Liszt was probably also the most prolific of all the great 19th-century composers. Like Bach or Mozart, he wrote so much music, it's almost incomprehensible how he found the time to copy it out, let alone compose it. 'And when you think that in between times he wrote several thousand letters every year, maintained a great many personal relationships, intimate and otherwise, taught thousands of pupils and conducted everybody else's operas - and still found time to smoke a box of cigars and drink a bottle of brandy every day . . .'

No wonder he couldn't find the time to play it all as well. And, as Howard points out, while Liszt is still popularly remembered as the first of the classical pop stars, the Nigel Kennedy of his day, like Nige, he actually retired as a soloist at 36 - 'and, apart from small private gatherings, never gave a whole concert again, except as a conductor.'

Even before that, he seems to have played very little of his own music in public. 'The First Piano Concerto he played only once, at its Weimar premiere, with Berlioz conducting; the Second Concerto he never played at all; and the Third he never even completed.' Howard has gone one better than the composer himself on that score, having premiered his own performing edition of the unfinished Third earlier this year in Florence.

Such dedication to the dead Abbe begins to look like an obsession verging on Lisztomania (as Ken Russell cinematically defined it). Although Howard hasn't gone quite as far as Liszt himself in having a mobile keyboard mounted in his coach, the complete edition has become something of a full-time occupation. Howard is constantly busy, not only recording, but unearthing, editing, reconstructing and even completing pieces, marshalling them into coherent programmes, practising and perfecting them, and writing the sleeve notes too. Given the number of forgotten works he has resurrected, it is a little ironic that the Valses oubliees, included on Volume 1 of the complete edition, are actually among Liszt's best remembered pieces. 'It's not that Liszt is the only composer I love,' Howard hastens to explain, 'but Mozart needs no help from me. Every last scratch of Mozart has now been published. In the case of Liszt, it's nowhere near so.'

As with last year's Philips Complete Mozart Edition, which had to add an extra volume to accommodate newly discovered fragments even as the bicentenary year drew to its close, completeness is perhaps an unattainable ideal: not a week passes without somebody sending Howard a photocopy of a manuscript fragment or a published copy corrected in the composer's own hand. Mostly these are pieces he has already discovered for himself: there are, though, one or two pieces - 'perhaps not of enormous significance but, still, I know about them, and that makes it frustrating' - that have come up for auction and disappeared into the vaults of anonymous private buyers. In most cases he has managed to get copies from other sources - 'but there is just one significant early work that I have not been able to get a copy of yet. It showed up in auction at Sotheby's and was bought for, I think, pounds 71,500 by an anonymous buyer I believe to be Japanese. It runs to some 27 pages in manuscript, of which I have photocopies of nine. But trying to get hold of the rest is the devil's own business.'

Once Volumes 35-37 are in the can, Howard is taking a well-earned break from recording, including a Wigmore Hall recital of Beethoven, Schumann and Rachmaninov with not a note of Liszt in sight. As he says, 'Things occasionally get into the dangerous position when you realise you've only played three Beethoven sonatas in the past 12 months.' Next April, though, his schedule sees him back in church for another five-day session every two months, with the aim of laying down another 10 discs by the end of the year. Meanwhile next year's releases will only just be catching up with last year's sessions - five consecutive CDs comprising the complete Beethoven symphony transcriptions.

If Liszt had problems finding the time even to play his own music, one wonders how he would ever have managed if he had had to record it as well. After the world premiere performance of the Hymne a St Cecile and another couple of run-throughs, any one of which would have been perfectly acceptable in a live recital, it takes Howard and his recording engineers another 60 minutes and 37 takes before they are all completely satisfied. Naturally, as Trygg Tryggvason, the producer, points out, there is no correlation between the number of takes and the number of edits in the final version. 'You can do two takes and end up cross-cutting 20 times between them, or you can do 40 takes and end up going for the first run-through.' Howard cites the famous example of one supposedly 'live' album by a legendary pianist which was actually pasted together from 67 different recitals - 'and all the critics said how wonderfully spontaneous his playing was]'

The occasional wrong note, slip of the finger or misreading apart, the chief culprits are actually the gale force winds rocking the trees outside and the airplanes that pass overhead almost every 10 minutes. 'There are just no good recording studios in this country,' Howard laments. 'They're all near roads or under flight-paths. At least here we don't have the Underground as well, although the birds do seem to fornicate on the roof every night at sunset.' One can but speculate what the saintly Abbe would have made of that.

Wigmore Hall recital: Friday 7.30pm

(Photograph omitted)