Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsodies (complete)

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4.0 out of 5 star rating 4.0

COMPOSERS: Liszt
LABELS: Hyperion
WORKS: Hungarian Rhapsodies (complete)
PERFORMER: Leslie Howard (piano)
CATALOGUE NO: CDA 67418-19
Here is the finale to Howard’s complete Liszt series – a monumental riposte to a century and more’s trivialising of a pianistic giant, and a vindication of the alliance of fanatics and leading players (including Arrau, Brendel, Richter) who kept faith. Howard has always played to the music’s inner strengths rather than its spectacle. Nowhere is that more essential than in the Hungarian Rhapsodies, which have suffered worst from being made fodder for performers’ egos.

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One measure is that complete sets have been rare while a handful of warhorses proliferated. Now here too is Jando’s second volume, part of Naxos’s ongoing complete Liszt which uses a whole stable of pianists. Jando and Howard are opposites. Howard is the more sophisticated. He homes in on the Hungarian melodies and evocations and locates the love and pride that Liszt lavished on them – in some ways Liszt’s project was ‘world music’ of its time. The quieter and more poetic passages stand out, feeling more than usual like a parallel to the nationalistic side of Chopin.

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Howard is careful to keep the full force of the keyboard for the moments that really need it, as at the end of Nos 6 and 12, and he is economical with the pedal. Jando is much more conventional, extrovert and immediately ear-catching. His rhythms are idiomatic and his performances flow with obvious excitement towards their peak moments, often showing an old-fashioned rhetorical swagger. For repeated hearing Howard just gets my benchmark, but there’s room for more. Robert Maycock