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Leslie Howard: Great Russian masters at Wigmore Hall

Wigmore Hall, London

July 17th, 2022

Leslie Howard’s all Russian programme for his annual concert at Wigmore Hall on July 18th at 7.30pm should be warmly welcomed. At such a time of international tension, it is of course unproductive to blame a whole country for the malpractices of its leaders, and Russia is no exception to this dictum.

Famous for his scholarship and understanding of Liszt as well as for his many performances and recordings of that composer, Howard’s love of the Russian composers Glazunov, Borodin and Rubinstein is unsurprising in that they all owe a debt to the Hungarian composer and pianist in one way or another.

It was Liszt after all who took the burgeoning Borodin under his wing and conducted his music whenever he could. They exchanged a lively correspondence, and Borodin dedicated his orchestral masterpiece In the Steppes of Central Asia to Liszt; Glazunov visited Liszt in Weimar in 1884 (Liszt arranged for the teenager’s 1st Symphony to be performed, and the 2nd Symphony was dedicated to Liszt in gratitude).  Although Liszt did not need to help the young Rubinstein in promoting his compositions, the lad had spent much time studying the master’s performance technique and was soon to be celebrated as the greatest pianist after Liszt; his virtuosic compositions surely owe a debt to the Romanticism of that composer. In the 1850s Liszt conducted the première of Rubinstein’s opera The Siberian Hunters, and dedicated to him both the prelude and the variations on Bach’s Weinen, Klagen.

Howard’s programme begins with Alexander Borodin’s Petite Suite and Scherzo, easily recognised as his most important work for the piano. Then the other Alexander – Glazunov – with his Thème et Variations, opus 72. This piece is based on a Finnish folk-song and is one of the composer’s most technically demanding works, comparable with the two Sonatas that he wrote in immediate succession.

The evening ends with Anton Rubinstein’s monumental Sonata No 4 in A minor (opus 100), which was written in 1876 and while showcasing bravura playing is nonetheless full of wonderful melodies and originality.

These composers who in their day formed part of a brilliantly talented group of Russian composers are often neglected on the concert platform today. But Leslie Howard has continued to champion them and this concert along with the recently re-released recordings on Heritage will, one hopes, bring the spotlight back onto these great masters. Tickets: wigmore-hall.org.uk

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