On Liszt’s 200th birthday, Leslie Howard proves the composer-pianist was no empty showman.

Having played so much Liszt – more than anyone in history has, on your 99-CD boxed set! – you must have a unique insight into what kind of pianist he was. 

Well, I can tell you he must have sat quietly, despite all of the caricatures of him throwing himself around when he was 24 years old. To play Liszt without fatigue, you must use only the muscles that are required and keep the rest relaxed. And his music sits extremely well under the hands; he’s much, much easier to play than Schubert.

Of course, it’s difficult, and you’ve got lots of things to do, and you really do need to know how to play the piano. But there is nothing that he writes that is awkward, whereas there’s almost nothing Schubert writes that isn’t awkward, because he just didn’t have the same keyboard gifts. Similarly, there is nothing in Liszt that is anywhere near as difficult to play as the Dvorák Piano Concerto – a magnificent piece of music, but one of the most ungainly bits of piano writing ever printed!

So you think the stereotype of Liszt as an empty showman is erroneous? 

Absolutely! There’s a certain jealousy that crept into the business while Liszt was still alive, because he was one of the only musicians of the day to gain serious wealth through his craft. There’s no point in saying he was a showman, because he wasn’t showing: most of his public performances after 1848 were as a conductor. He was a very serious musician, and to treat him with anything less than complete seriousness is to misunderstand and belittle him.

Tell me about the process of recording The Complete Liszt Piano Music. How long ago did it start?

The first record was made at the end of 1985 – it was all the Mephisto Waltzes and the Valses Oubliées. At that stage, Hyperion hadn’t agreed to record everything; we were just making a Liszt record. In 1986 we made two more; they both won Grands Prix du Disque. At that point, Ted Perry of Hyperion Records said, “I suppose we’d better do everything then. But do we have to do all those transcriptions and fantasies?” And I said, “Well, why don’t we make a record of them and see what happens?”

There’s a hell of a lot of music you’ve had to master for these recordings. How do you go about it?

I sit at the piano, play the music and analyse it as I go. Certainly in the final versions of every piece I made sure that I played them in concert before I recorded them. That was very tricky to do because everyone wanted me to play what was on the latest record, but all I wanted to do was play the next lot! In any case, I started long before the recordings. I was playing Liszt from when my hands were big enough to play the chords he wrote.

So Liszt has always been a composer you felt an affinity with?

Yes. From the moment I first saw the Liszt entry in Grove Dictionary of all the music that he actually wrote, and realised that the average music lover doesn’t even know five percent of his oeuvre, it struck me that, of all the great 19th-century composers, he was the one who needed somebody to do something about it. 

What real gems have you discovered of his music, that were completely unknown?

When I recorded the works for piano and orchestra, I premiered the Grand Solo de Concert and Hexaméron. There’s quite a lot of stuff like this that needed resuscitating. I also gave the first public performance of the Fantasy on Themes from Figaro and Don Giovanni

I’ve heard the Fantasy performed in piano competitions before. Perhaps it was your edited version?

In that case, I’ve done a bit of good! I’m quietly happy that there are many people now who are playing a much wider repertoire of Liszt than they used to, in part because my records have been out there.

For the average music lover, who perhaps suffers from the misconception that Liszt is not a deep composer, what pieces would you recommend? 

I would, instead, steer all listeners away from delinquent piano playing. Most people labour under the colossal misapprehension that all of Liszt’s piano music is difficult, loud and fast. I’ve recorded 1,400 piano pieces by Liszt; the vast majority of them end quietly, and a great many of them never rise to fortissimo or even forte. Unfortunately, this myth has been brought about by bad piano players who use Liszt as a vehicle to show off.

So what do you think Liszt’s legacy is?

He simply expanded what the piano could do, more than anybody else in the 19th century. I’m sure he always thought of orchestral instruments when he was writing for the piano, which is exactly the opposite of how Chopin thought.

Do you think that’s why he wrote so many transcriptions, because he was striving for something orchestral?

His early operatic transcriptions started a new form. Lots of people wrote bad variations on operatic tunes, but Liszt elevated this to a real art, where you have several themes but you write variations on all of them simultaneously and combine and contrast them in different ways.

Why do you think Liszt gave so many of his pieces programmatic titles?

Liszt did have a genius for characteristic titles. He was never a man to write things in imitations of classical forms; the only absolute classical title that he ever gave anything was his Sonata. With the Symphonic Poems, it was his intention that everybody should be so enthusiastic about all of the other arts in the world – Dante and Goethe – that they shouldn’t mind that music writes hymns to them.

I think you can say you’ve pretty much “done Liszt”. You’ve recorded almost everything there is to record. So what’s next for you? 

Actually, I’ve still got a lot of Liszt to play! I’ve edited all the music for violin and piano, cello and piano and piano trio. Most people don’t even know this stuff exists, but there are 200 pages of violin and piano music, and not a bad piece in the lot. If you got rid of all the solo piano pieces, Liszt is still one of the most prolific composers of the 19th century, no question about it.

Liszt’s 200th birthday falls on October 22. Leslie Howard’s 99-CD boxed set of the complete Liszt Piano Works is out now on Hyperion Records.