Review: Pianist Howard a master of his craft

  • Return visitor: William Howard displayed his “extraordinary musicianship” at City Hall on Sunday night

    Return visitor: William Howard displayed his “extraordinary musicianship” at City Hall on Sunday night

To hear pianist William Howard perform Frédéric Chopin’s Scherzo No 2 Op 31 B flat minor is well worth leaving a warm home on a chilly Sunday afternoon for the Earl Cameron Theatre, City Hall.

The programme notes describe this work as “ ... unashamedly virtuosic and dramatic music”, with recognition of its “more mediative trio sections”.

With its abrupt, darkly dramatic chord progressions and countless arpeggiated flights around a heart-rendingly gorgeous melody, there is plenty of room for interpretation in this piece.

A return visitor to the Bermuda Festival, Mr Howard’s “superb pianism” as described by Classic CD is apt, but The Independent’s description — “A pianist of quite special lustrousness and versatility,” says it best. He is a specialist of the Romantic period, and this Chopin, his penultimate piece of the evening, was the highlight.

Romance was in the air with a programme that was not only of that period — with just two contemporary exceptions — but as the pianist told the audience, most of the works he would be performing were composed within a 14-year period.

While some pieces were written when the composers were very young and others at the end of their lives, there was none-the-less a golden thread that ran throughout — a lightness of touch, a mastery of composition and many of these performed works were inspired by individuals the composers loved, or for whom they held a deep affection.

Of those was Felix Mendlessohn’s breathtaking Rondo Capriccioso Op 16, dedicated to Delphine can Schauroth, a young pianist with whom the composer was for a time in love. Gorgeous and lyrical, in the hands of Mr Howard this blossoms into a rich, dense crescendo, reverting to an airy caprice before concluding in highly dramatic form.

Chopin’s Ballad No 1 in G Minor Op 23 was the last piece on the programme and is one of his most well known, a beloved waltz that is at times pensive, and at other times filled with angst.

It is described as a superbly conceived and executed piece of music, and it is one that provides a pianist of Mr Howard’s extraordinary musicianship and emotional empathy with the period the range to express his “astonishing interpretive powers”, according to one reviewer, and give a performance which left the audience exhilarated.

The programme, though, included some pieces that are not heard very often. The opening pieces were an example; Franz Schubert’s charming 3 Klavierstucke D 946, which addresses a range of musical ideas: light and freely formed, lyrical, sparkling with arpeggios, forboding, frenetic and at times powerful, coupled with Mr Howard’s technical mastery and beautiful phrasing, gave an interesting and gentle introduction to both the pianist and to the programme.

They set the stage for Robert Schumann’s Christmas present to Clara, — his music teacher’s daughter, who was to become his wife. The first of his Bunte Blatter, or “coloured leaves”, and like a snowfall, it was light and bright, with a romantic and lyrical foundation that set the tone for the remainder of his “leaves” — a superbly romantic set of very short pieces — or “small jewels” as Mr Howard describes them, which explore a large range of moods and emotions.

The six that the pianist chose to perform were a cohesive group, which created a musical whole that seemed in the aftermath to be greater than the sum of its parts.

Moving into the modern era, Mr Howard performed two pieces that were composed by his friend and contemporary David Matthews.

The first, a set of four musical portraits that included Mr Howard along with three mutual friends, gave the audience the fascinating experience of seeing how a personality can be described by a piece of music.

Mr Matthews’ astonishing range of ability and level of skill became clear with Mr Howard’s performance of “The Shorter Ring” which is a five-minute synopsis of the four operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, a challenge the pianist gave the composer and which was to be a gift for a mutual friend who was a fanatical Wagner fan, he explained.

The result is a clever and amusing fly-past of the operas, an extraordinary performance that required the pianist to make some abrupt musically technical adjustments. As Mr Howard said: “For those of you who don’t know Wagner — well, now you will know everything you will need to hear of him.”

Perhaps that would be enough of Wagner, but I would want to hear a lot more from this pianist before I had heard everything I needed to from him.

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Published Feb 10, 2015 at 8:00 am (Updated Feb 10, 2015 at 1:19 am)

Review: Pianist Howard a master of his craft

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