"Elegance" was the key word for the piano recital by Leslie Howard on Friday night - both elegance of the programmed works and elegance of artistry. And the program of two long, complete works gave a certain deliberation and unhurried grace to the evening.
Howard had the requisite refinement and empathy for the seldom-performed "Goyescas" by Enrique Granados, bringing artistocracy and poesy to these sparkling, tuneful pieces, saturated with Hispanic charm.One was struck by the pianist's clear and lucid touch, which made the melodies sing without over-dramatization, masterful support from a firm bass hand that was never muddied, clean and artful pedaling, delicacy and refinement of phrasing, and above all, a certain innate tastefulness.
The first section of the "Goyescas," "Los Majos Enamorados" (the Young Lovers), is filled with amorous encounters, bold dances and candle-lit romance - and some of Granados' most beautiful melodies.
Howard immediately engaged the listener with the flirtatious "Los Requiebros," (gallant compliments), a beguiling jota of building intensity. A fandango by candlelight combined marked dance rhythms and rich harmonies, and the most popular of all the `Goyescas," "The Maiden and the Nightingale," lost no element of moonlit emotion through Howard's tasteful restraint, more moving than sentimental excess.
The latter part of the suite, preoccupied more with death than love, has less smiles and sunlight, and one can see why it is less often played. Not because it lacks merit, but the listener's attention may be drawn to a certain diffuseness in Granados' music which can become a litte tedious, even when masterfully played. Nonetheless, "El Pelele" (The Straw Doll), composed for the opera that the composer later fashioned from his "Goyescas," brought the first half to a bravura climax.
The ubiquitous "Pictures at an Exhibition" is not a novelty in these parts, but one thanked the pianist for playing the edition based most closely on Mussorgky's original rugged composition.
Howard's imagination and almost graphic clarity gave one a pictorial mental image of the artist Hartmann's sketches, which inspired these musical vignettes.
Outstanding in this musical gallery tour were the lively staccato conversations - the children at play in the Tuilerie Gardens, the little chicks crisply peeping and pecking, and the housewives gossiping in the French marketplace. By contrast, one noted the lumbering heaviness of the peasant oxcart, the solemnity of the catacombs, the whimsicality of the gnome, the witch Baba-Jaga's grotesque revelry.
While one can understand use of the printed score in the "Goyescas," not a really standard item of repertory, reference to it did seem to come between the artist and his audience, especially in the heavier pieces. And one would expect him to know the "Pictures" from memory.