Supported by generous help from the Turnovsky Endowment Trust

Michael Houstoun memorably opens Waikanae’s chamber music recital series

By , 18/02/2018

Waikanae Music Society
Michael Houstoun (piano)

Bach: English Suite No 2 in A minor, BWV 807
Chopin: Four Ballades (Opp. 23, 38, 47, 52)
Mozart: Sonata No 8 in A minor, K 310

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 18 February, 2:30 pm

This is the season of series launches. The Waikanae Music Society, in contrast to certain other comparable chamber music groups, is in good shape, thanks to an immediately attractive programme of eight concerts, with no patronisingly-popular concerts that fail to touch those likely to be interested in real chamber music; plus an enticing ticketing policy that makes it cheap to subscribe and to attend most concerts.

And that’s compounded by a big population of older people, many of whom seem to be cultivated and musically inclined. The proof of their success lay in the huge audience – I’d guess around 600 – which was of course in substantial part because of Michael Houstoun.

To recruit Houstoun to launch the series was a very good move (and the society chair Germana Nicklin presented flowers and life membership of the society to patrons Sir Rodney and Lady Gillian Dean, in particular, for their help with this concert). It was Houstoun’s 15th recital for the society, and he marked that by playing the same Mozart sonata that he’d played at his first one in 1987: the A minor, K 310.

Bach English Suite
But the concert began with Bach’s English Suite No 2 in A minor (chosen to chime with the key of the Mozart?). Houstoun’s Bach sounded immediately comfortable in the acoustic of the big auditorium and he exploited fully the Fazioli piano’s warmth. Considering its minor key, it was full of positive energy and in complete sympathy with piano rather than harpsichord; Houstoun didn’t subject his playing unduly to the harpsichord’s subtle dynamic boundaries which can obviously be relaxed on the piano. The sparkling Prelude was perfectly conceived.

There are six movements (counting the two bourrées as one); the elegant calm of the Allemande quieted the emotion that the fluid Prelude had established. The varied dance-derived movements might suggest greater distinctness than actually emerges in these, and in most of Bach’s suites. The Courante returns to a mood of sparkling cheerfulness and the Sarabande, in very slow, chaconne-like triple time, sometimes a hard-to-discern rhythm; it’s by far the longest movement.

The last two (three) movements are based on livelier dances. Houstoun’s Bourée I seemed to climb cheerfully up the hill, and then relaxed coming down, at a gentle pace. The Gigue was far from a boisterous peasant romp, but flowed evenly and stayed within the dynamic limits already set.

Chopin Ballades
Chopin’s four Ballades make a thoroughly rewarding package, and the performances by Houstoun the instinctive Chopinist, never sounded simply like a hundred other more routine accounts. There were discreet tempo (No 1 started uncommonly slowly) and dynamic shifts that always seemed just what the composer might have had in mind. (Incidentally, Houstoun clearly intended them to be listened to in pairs, with no applause between Nos 1 and 2, as he remained seated, hands poised for the next: the message didn’t seem to penetrate the audience for clapping again separated Nos 3 and 4. These things are not recondite affectations; they are sought by the performer and the audience should watch body language).

I can never hear No 1 now without recalling the diverting account by amateur pianist-cum-ex-Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger (Play it again), of his year-long struggle to master it. Houstoun certainly made it sound rather easier than Rusbridger found it, but its mighty challenges were still, very evident.

Though they can hardly be heard as four parts of an integrated suite, with their very different spirits and narratives (Chopin apparently had narrative backgrounds, but never revealed them) it is rewarding to hear them all together; after all, Chopin chose to use the same word to describe all four. So No 2, in F major, is more sanguine and less tortured than parts of No 1, though its sudden shocks never fail to surprise no matter how many times you’ve been there. Long pauses were an interesting, very telling aspect of Houstoun’s performance.

Nos 3 adopts an easy triple rhythm, never quite a waltz: subdued, with less drama, though with a turbulent left hand that created a feeling of unease. And No 4, after its hesitant opening, led to an uneasy passage with its complex left hand underlay; Houstoun evoked its spirit of uncertainty, embroidered with insight and sympathy. Typically, after a long pause and a prolonged episode of indecision, it hurls itself into a short, tumultuous finale.

This was the end of the concert and Houstoun played an encore: a less familiar Chopin Nocturne, Op 15 No 1.

Mozart’s sonata K310
But the second half of the concert had begun with Mozart’s A minor sonata, one of the great ones which, in a 1950s performance by Walter Gieseking, introduced me in my late teens properly to Mozart’s sonatas. It entranced me (and yes, you can now find it on YouTube!). I have to get used to the reading of the opening bar with an acciaccatura (if I have the term right) rather than an appoggiatura, which seems to be the convention today; Houstoun’s account was considered and absorbing, appropriate to its description Allegro maestoso. In the slow movement, Houstoun’s occasional stretching and slight swaying of the rhythm accorded with the description ‘cantabile con espressione’, even though it might have seemed somewhat unMozartian. Such touches contributed to a performance of one of only a couple of Mozart’s sonatas in a minor key, as masterful, authoritative and beautifully poetic, fleshing out a recital that very obviously fully rewarded the large audience which almost entirely stood in admiration at the end.


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