The untimely death of the scheduled pianist Ronald Smith in late May threw the organizers of the Singapore International Piano Festival into an urgent search for a replacement, who—at very short notice—could cobble together a recital in the spirit of this year’s theme “Legends of the Piano,” and also complement the programs of the other three performers. Leslie Howard took up this formidable task with mixed results: the works selected—particularly the inclusion of the Smith-championed Symphony for Piano Solo—were an entirely appropriate tribute to the late master; unfortunately, a few more weeks of preparation might have allowed for a more secure presentation of this magnificent repertoire. (cross-reference below)
Beethoven’s “Eroica” Variations never left the page: harmonic direction, especially the vital leading tones, was largely absent and the many repeated notes—such a key element of this work—remained too equal,further eroding the sense of forward thrust. There was never a feeling of arrival, more a pervading sense of “good enough – we got through that one.”
The technical demands were largely met, but they added just cascades of notes rather than important supporting material. Sadly, the final fughetta resolved nothing and was rewarded with a similarly tepid ovation from the audience.
The compelling opening measures of Liszt’s Variations commanded our attention but nearly suffocated the ear from lack of breath and too many bar lines. The balance of the more intimate and quasi recitative sections fared better but the overall pedantic approach left them without a clear sense of purpose.
At first, the frenzied chaos of the “Scherzo and March” offered promise but couldn’t settle down to a consistent design while a few of the fiendish passages slipped the leash and dashed off on their own.
The Chopin Mazurkas were in stark contrast to Idil Biret’s forays the previous evening (cross-reference below). Howard excelled in his tempi and deft rubato but too often threw away the inner voices instead of weaving them into the whole. Somewhat mucky passagework and a strangely muddy pedal in No. 2 further diminished the charm and allure of this trio of gems.
Following Howard’s thoughtful comments regarding Smith’s important contributions to music over many decades (including the telling “You can’t arrange it—Alkan’s Symphony for Piano Solo—for orchestra, it doesn’t work!”) the finest playing of the evening made a solid case for further hearings of the reclusive composer’s wide-ranging opus.
The heady melodrama of the opening movement, spiced with more than a sprinkle of Mendelssohn’s skill, was pushed ahead with great earnestness and marred only by an uneven pace in the development.
Smith, a longtime enthusiast of Alkan’s had the compliment returned in the F minor “Funeral March” that was poignant and brimming with contrast and many repeated notes which provided the aural link back to the program’s opening work.
The “Menuet” was oddly static and could have benefited with touches of the Danube’s lilting pulse or Transylvania’s terrifically evil connotation.
Howard hunkered down for the technical trials of the Finale, hitting far more than were missed and then survived the ravages of the contrapuntal lines to bring this remarkable composition and the evening to a resounding finish. JWR