Spitalfields festival: William Howard – a birthday celebration
Helen Wallace enjoys an adventurous birthday celebration at Spitalfields Festival
St Leonard’s Church in Shoreditch is a key venue for Spitalfields Festival, and its gaunt, decaying elegance lends a defining atmosphere. A piano recital will always be vulnerable to its cavernous acoustic, but here its relationship with the music was as often illuminating as distorting. For this was a unique programme, reflecting the unusual creative network of William Howard (right), most often heard as pianist of the Schubert Ensemble. To celebrate his 60th birthday, he mixed Schubert and Chopin with works written for him by Pavel Zemek Novák and David Matthews.
Novák’s music, religiously-inspired, fared best. He wrote his towering four-book 24 Preludes and Fugues expressly for Howard (recorded on Champs Hill), who played Book Three ‘New Testament’. We were treated to a continuous play of glittering sonorities crawling up the piano, chimes rippling with overtones above a densely textured, tonally-focused ground. While this work bears a spiritual comparison with Messaien’s Vingt Regards, its musical forebears include Janačék, Ligeti and Moravian folk music. Towards the end the seven last words of Jesus Christ are heard in clangourous pitches crashing through the shimmer, each creating celestial overtone chords.
If the mystical power in Novák’s work was amplified by the church setting, some of the exquisite subtlety in Matthew’s work was lost. His Four Portraits, conjures four friends in what amounts to a short piano sonata. Howard himself is pictured in a sly, slow Chopin-esque waltz, while Novák inspired the joyous last movement with an impish Moravian folk-tune. In the middle comes a darkly menacing Scherzo, intended for the composer Anthony Powers, and an intriguing depiction of Anne Senior’s (manager of the Schubert Ensemble) Gloucestershire garden riven with strange lines of birdsong and cockerels, a resource Matthews is increasingly drawn to. It was tantalising to hear this engaging, fluent work as through a veil, it should be heard again.
Howard began with Schubert’s extraordinary Drei Klavierstücke D946. His urgency in the first stream of minor turbulence, and the obsessive, persistent rhythms of the second piece compelled, contrasting with episodes of sunlit serenity. Schubert seems closest here to Schumann in the volatile directness of his expression: why don’t we hear these works more often? Like the Schubert, a fine performance of Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 occasionally lacked clarity, but coalesced into a Largo of mesmerising beauty, Howard’s spell-binding legato creating a well of peace.
The concert ended on a hilarious high with the premiere of David Matthew’s The Shorter Ring – the whole of Wagner's Ring cycle done and dusted in five minutes, not a leitmotif left out. Can’t imagine a more painless way to enjoy Wagner’s 200th anniversary….
Spitalfields Summer Festival continues until 22 June. Photo: John Clark