The desire and pursuit of the whole

After recording all 10 million notes of Liszt's piano music - Leslie Howard is still looking for more
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The Independent Culture

How much can a piano piece lasting six seconds convey? A whole musical philosophy, when it's Liszt's Prelude Omnitonique. For here was the whole-tone scale, a full half-century before Debussy patented it: written on a visiting-card, given to God knows who, and lost till it turned up at auction two years ago. No prizes for guessing who has now recorded it: the mad and marvellous Leslie Howard, the pianist who is currently Liszt's prime representative on earth.

How much can a piano piece lasting six seconds convey? A whole musical philosophy, when it's Liszt's Prelude Omnitonique. For here was the whole-tone scale, a full half-century before Debussy patented it: written on a visiting-card, given to God knows who, and lost till it turned up at auction two years ago. No prizes for guessing who has now recorded it: the mad and marvellous Leslie Howard, the pianist who is currently Liszt's prime representative on earth.

When Howard plays Liszt at the Wigmore Hall tonight, he'll be celebrating more than the keyboard god's birthday. Hyperion has just released the final volume in a 95-CD series in which he has recorded almost every scrap of piano music Liszt wrote. I say "almost" because with this preternaturally prolific composer there's always more to come: Howard is already planning an addendum recording of the stuff that's surfaced this year.

Twelve miles of printed music, containing 10 million notes and taking 117 hours to play: with the big labels in headlong retreat, how did Hyperion find the nerve to do it? "It all started by accident," says managing director Ted Perry. "We had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for. It just grew, and Leslie Howard's a bully."

But Perry was keeping his eyes open: Howard's records began to win prizes, and also to sell to the trainspotter tendency, particularly in Italy and Japan. "I looked round the shops in Italy recently," says Perry. "And to my amazement saw notices announcing the release date of the next volume. People are queuing up and some records are selling seven thousand copies."

But this Liszt business is very strange, as befits a composer whose caricatured life - as a womanising, brandy-swilling, gypsy-priest - came to overshadow his towering musical achievement. When Bugs Bunny played the second Rapsodie Hongroise in 1946, that seemed to most people the measure of the man. It's only thanks to missionary work by pianists such as Alfred Brendel - plus Alan Walker's massive biography (Faber & Faber) - that Liszt has belatedly received his due.

Leslie Howard was drawn into the game when, as a teenager in Melbourne, he first heard Horowitz playing the B minor Sonata, and then a recording of Rachmaninov playing Gnomenreigen. "I went out and bought the score of the Transcendental Studies, and to my relief found I could play a few pages, so I got very enthusiastic. Then I discovered that the bulk of his music was out of print." If it ever had been in print, for much of his music never was. As president of Britain's Liszt Society - which publishes scores - he's now doing what he can to remedy the situation.

Others have been trying for decades, with limited success. The Budapest Liszt Edition started issuing the complete works in 1968, but at the rate it's going it won't finish it until 2100. "In any case," says Howard, "it's not complete at all. They only print the final version of each work, which in my view is a terrible pity." The publisher Peters recently asked him to do a proposal for a genuinely complete edition, and the company was horrified to hear that the piano music alone would run to 32 volumes of 300 pages. "But I've already started. If they wanted, I could have the whole thing ready in two years."

From anyone else that would be bluff, but to watch this fast-talking giant at work in his south London studio - the whole house is a shrine to Liszt - is to realise that he means exactly what he says. His energy is mind-boggling, his forensic zeal inexhaustible. The Hyperion series contains many hitherto unrecorded works, some of which Howard had to complete. Others he had to reconstitute: the way he unearthed an early version of the Valse melancolique makes the brain reel.

In the American Library of Congress, Howard found a correction-sheet with one missing item, which he later found on the pasted-over reverse of a separate sheet on which Liszt had written a different piece. "He probably decided against publishing this version, but it's too beautiful to neglect." Liszt was a tireless reworker of his own ideas: one of the pleasures of this edition lies in watching them unfurl like flowers, then endlessly mutate.

To demonstrate the point, Howard rattles through five piano versions of a graceful song about some cloisters on the Rhine, which went through dozens of variations on many combinations of instruments. Though the core remains the same, the cladding changes dramatically, from simplicity to florid expansiveness to final spare economy, with a single voice feathering away in silence. Over the top of this Howard gives his running commentary, making the case for this piece - which arose in the brief time Liszt spent with his three children, before death snatched two of them away - to be seen as poignant autobiography.

So how does he feel about Liszt, after this prolonged immersion? "More sympathetic to the less important pieces than I once was, because I know his character better." When I ask how much musical innovation was in his view anticipated by Liszt, Howard replies with another recital, this time of the BACH Fugue. Then he makes what seems like a hair-splitting distinction. "For 60 bars Liszt suspends our sense of tonality: it's not dissonantly atonal, but it certainly isn't in key." But the distinction is real. "Liszt would not have been too fond of what that high-priest of atonality Schoenberg did, because I don't think Schoenberg ever heard his own music in his head. But Liszt would have understood Debussy well, and would have liked early Stravinsky - though not the late Stravinsky, which is so artificially conceived that no one could ever have sung a nursery rhyme in it."

Liszt may have been the the most daring experimentalist of his day, but he never cut loose from the promptings of the heart. So what next? "Well, I'm astonished that no one has yet recorded the complete Beethoven. Plenty of people have done the complete sonatas, but they're just the tip of the iceberg. Everything Beethoven wrote is of at least some interest." Will Hyperion take the bait? "I think they'll need a bit of persuading." Meanwhile, he's still on the case with Liszt, dreaming of the lost works - Liszt's arrangement of Beethoven's Egmont and Coriolan overtures, and of Berlioz's Corsaire - which no one has yet tracked down.

And he's goaded almost beyond endurance by the silence of the anonymous owner of a work entitled Grand solo caractéristique à propos d'une chansonette de Penseron, who won't let him have a sight of it. "Sotheby's sent copies of nine of its pages for me to identify, but I haven't got copies of the other 25. We'll now probably have to wait till the owner dies. Moreover, some prize idiot who had previously owned it cut the signature off the last page, and on the reverse of that page were some of the notes of the penultimate page - we're dealing with a real music-lover here! God knows where the fragment of paper with the signature is, but it'll probably be in a frame, and no one will know there's music on the back." So if anyone reading this has a Lisztean flourish hanging on the wall, they know what to do.

 

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