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sn’t It Romantic? Yes, and Edifying, Too

A little Liszt can go a long way, but if anyone can turn a full evening of Liszt’s grandly Romantic piano music into an edifying experience, it is Leslie Howard.

To say that Mr. Howard is a Liszt specialist is to understate his efforts. His most durable project is a 96-disc traversal of the composer’s complete piano music for the Hyperion label. While preparing that series Mr. Howard edited many of Liszt’s unpublished manuscripts, and he included a few rarities in his program on Tuesday evening, part of the International Keyboard Institute and Festival at the Mannes College of Music.

One was the “Grosses Konzertsolo,” a precursor of the B minor Sonata. A few of the ideas - or, at least, gestures - that Liszt worked out further in the Sonata make an early appearance here. This is Liszt at his showiest, a muscular essay that ranges over the full keyboard and seems all but impossible to play with only two hands. It also has all the moves that can be found in parodies of flashy Romantic pianism. (Think of Chico Marx’s set pieces.) Thundering bass chords, punctuated by pairs of quickly splashed chords at the top of the keyboard, give way to slow, mooning themes that angle their way through the middle range, accompanied by the machine-gun ripple of a treble obbligato.

There may be more to this piece than immediately meets the ear; certainly some of the connections, both thematic and formal, might be interesting to explore. Mostly, though, it was easier to be swept away by the performance than by the work itself. Mr. Howard’s dramatic reading made it exciting in purely visceral terms and gave it the quality of a guilty pleasure - a classical equivalent of, say, an Iron Maiden concert, at which virtuosity and showmanship sometimes eclipse the music at hand.

Mr. Howard illuminated other sides of Liszt as well. In "Les Adieux - Rêverie sur un Motif de l’Opéra de Charles Gounod ‘Roméo et Juliette,’ " he touched on the dreamier, more delicately lyrical side of Liszt’s work. He turned the variations on a theme from a Bach cantata, “Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Sagen,” into a pitched battle between Baroque and Romantic styles, with graceful renderings of the Bach chorale (sometimes complete with trills) appearing periodically amid Lisztian filigree and thrashing. Mr. Howard’s restored version of the "Fantasy on Themes From Mozart’s ‘Figaro’ and ‘Don Giovanni’ " showed how ingenious Liszt could be when working with first-rate material.


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