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JS Bach since the time of Bach – brought to life by Michael Houstoun

By , 23/09/2015

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
INSPIRED BY BACH – Michael Houstoun

JS BACH – Partita No.1 in B-flat BWV 825
ROSS HARRIS – Fugue (for piano)
DOUGLAS LILBURN – Chaconne
SERGEY RACHMANINOV – Suite from Violin Partita (after JS Bach)
DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH – Prelude and Fugue No.24 in D Minor Op.87
FRANZ LISZT – Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor (after JS Bach)

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre, Wellington

Wednesday, 23rd September, 2015

Many people regard Johann Sebastian Bach as the greatest composer who ever lived – he’s certainly one of those “elect” few whose creative musical achievements have in their time and/or since drawn forth the highest and most frequent praise from performers, scholars and ordinary music-listeners. But as such judgements involving creativity are prone to subjectivity and influenced by fashion, it’s impossible to verify “greatness” in any pure, abstract or objective way. More to the point, perhaps is to assess Bach’s “greatness” by the range and scope of his music’s influence upon other creative artists.

The old saying “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” comes well-and-truly into its own when considering Bach’s influence upon music in general. Even during the period immediately after his death, when his works fell into obscurity and his fame was temporarily eclipsed by his sons, most notably Carl Philippe Emmanuel, connoisseurs remained aware of “Old Bach’s” music, and kept it alive – people like the Viennese aristocrat Baron Von Swieten, one of Mozart’s patrons, who urged the composer to transcribe some Bach fugues for string ensemble; and Beethoven’s teacher Christian Gottlob Neefe, who put the eleven-year-old Ludwig onto the Well-Tempered Clavier as part of his tuition.

Bach’s skill as a contrapuntist doubtlessly informed Beethoven’s renowned use of fugal passages in his music – Beethoven reputedly remarked that Bach (whose name translates as “brook”) ought to have been called “Meer” (which means “ocean”). In both his and Mozart’s later music the fugal style a la Johann Sebastian B’s example plays a significant role. Though Chopin never composed any fugues he was a devotee of Bach’s keyboard music, as reflected in the  beautiful clarity of his counterpointed passages (the fourth Ballade containing particularly lovely examples). Liszt and Schumann, also both devotees of Bach, did compose fugues, besides writing numerous passages in their works directly linked with a contrapuntal style (parts of Schumann’s Second Symphony present one example, while the fugue in Liszt’s B Minor Piano Sonata provides another).

Michael Houstoun’s “Inspired by Bach” presentation for Chamber Music New Zealand, sent such spheres of Bachian influence spinning into the 21st century, with Ross Harris’s 2015 work Fugue (for piano), premiered on this very recital tour, and presented cheek-by jowl with another Kiwi’s homage to baroque forms, Douglas Lilburn’s Chaconne (written in 1946). Also in the program was the last and greatest of Shostakovich’s 24 Preludes and fugues for piano, a work directly inspired by Shostakovich’s hearing of his compatriot Tatiana Nikolayeva’s playing of (you’ve guessed it!) the ubiquitous Well-Tempered Clavier. We heard, too, from composer-pianist Sergey Rachmaninov, who, besides writing a set of piano variations on a theme of Corelli, transcribed several of the movements from Bach’s solo violin Partita in E for piano.

Of course, the “prince” of transcribers was Franz Liszt, whose tireless activities produced works for the keyboard drawn from almost every genre of music of his day. Though known for his “fantasias”, freely-wrought representations of themes and sequences from works by other composers, Liszt also devoted enormous energies to faithful transcriptions of works such as the nine Beethoven Symphonies, simply for the purpose of being able to perform the music in places which had no orchestras. A more-than-competent organist himself, Liszt devoted much attention to the work of Bach, writing original works based on Bachian structures (such as Weinen, Klargen, Sorgen, Zargen, for solo piano), but making transcriptions for the instrument of the Six Organ Preludes and Fugues BWV 543-548, and a slightly “freer” transcription of the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor BWV 542,  the latter work played here.

It can be seen by all of this that the programme as devised was filled with interest and potential excitement – and most fittingly, Michael Houstoun began the evening with the great progenitor’s own Partita No.1 in B-flat  BWV 825. Straightaway we were treated to brightly-focused playing, with trilled ornaments relished to the full, the trajectories steady, but subtly varied, the implied orchestrations apparent but organic – and there was a lovely, romantic-sounding ritardando at the Praeludium’s end. I enjoyed also the chatty, energetic Allemande, with its full-throated voicings, as well as the bumptious and characterful Corrente, the piano’s slightly nasal left-hand register giving this music an attractively varied timbre in places.

Often a form containing great feeling and profundity in Bach’s music, the Sarabande here emanated poise and majesty the first time round, then found a shimmering resonance on its repeat – so very lovely! As for the two Menuets, the first  was given a sturdy, forthright character by Houstoun, who then moved to the second as if in a trance, allowing the music to dream its course, and then returning most tellingly to the opening to complete the ABA structure, thus enabling each dance to highlight the other’s attributes. So to the final Gigue, which has never seemed to me like a Gigue (or “Jig”) at all, lacking that skipping, dotted-rhythm aspect – though in Houstoun’s hands liveliness it certainly had, a kind of molto perpetuo character in fact, breathless and exhilarating!

Ross Harris’s piece Fugue (for piano) seemed to me to “scintillate” fugal form from its insides, the seeds of impulse to my ears growing, sparking and shooting forth notes and their configurations, and creating rich and strange worlds of variegated beauty. It was a soundscape that seemed to constantly reinvent itself, by turns haunting itself with its own ambiences, and providing reassurance through sequences of echo and inversion. The piece spread its amplitude almost by stealth, the figures tightly-woven, but expansively-placed, beautifully resonant bass notes reflecting the light from stars tumbling in the firmament, the irruptions of energy in places almost “Hammerklavier-like” in dynamic effect, and contrasting with the pinpricks of sound softly illuminating moments of stillness. Metrical contrapuntal lines broke free of confines and seemed to cosmically open up the music’s vistas, similar in feeling to those in Beethoven’s Bach-inspired Op.111 Piano Sonata’s finale. Such infinities of space between the sounds! The composer’s “three fugue subjects” certainly brought forth a rich panoply of both connective and otherwise exploratory tissue, the whole given an extraordinary range of strength, transparency and colour by Michael Houstoun’s assured playing.

A chaconne’s musical form is variation over a repeating bass line or harmonic sequence – it was a popular form for Baroque composers, one of the most famous examples being Bach’s  Chaconne from the Partita in D Minor for unaccompanied violin. Douglas Lilburn’s use of the form reflected not only his admiration for Bach’s music but his desire to produce some kind of “testament of faith”, stimulated by a combination of South Island landscape and the composer’s belief in the idea of expressing his feelings in music, putting, as he later described it, “an enormous amount of myself into the notes”.

Originally called “Theme and Variations for Piano”, this work had to wait for its premiere for eight years before ex-patriate New Zealander Peter Cooper took it up and made a broadcast recording of the work from London (he subsequently re-recorded it in the studio for Pye Records during the nineteen-sixties). Since then it’s received several more recordings, including one by Michael Houstoun.

As with the recording, I thought this performance was a tremendous achievement! Houstoun’s playing seemed to me a shade tauter here in concert, compared with the studio reading, more “direct” and outwardly energized, though recognizably the same interpretation, with its bigness of heartbeat and awareness of surroundings set amid the forward momentum. The performance established strongly- focused purpose, but also allowed great wonderment in places, registering the world’s stillness and processes of renewal, so that the strengthening of resolve that welled up out of the visionary moments had plenty of engaging surface excitement plus a treasurable sense of well-being. The playing seemed to me to readily evoke both the observer’s spirit and the essence of what was experienced, however sharply contrasted – now strong and purposeful, now dreamy and ruminatory.

Perhaps the work’s “home stretch” could have done with a touch more rhetoric, a few moments’ added tonal and figurative extension – the ending of the work always seems to me to, in a sense, “ambush” the listener, like a homecoming that’s just around a corner, rather than one glimpsed or sensed from a long way off! – but Houstoun, as he tends to do by sheer dint of focus and concentration in all of his performances, made it work in its present context, leaving us replete at the end with our journeys’ revelations.

Sergey Rachmaninov’s regular complaint was that he had neither time nor inclination to compose, having to live the life of a travelling virtuoso pianist. On the strength of his transcriptions of parts of Bach’s E Major Violin Partita, it’s a pity he wasn’t able to turn his hand to more such transcription work (obviously for his own use as a performer, but for our inestimable benefit as well!). His work demonstrates a composer’s awareness of content as much as a feeling for display, so that in these works the spirit of the original in many places shines triumphantly through the virtuoso brilliance. Each of the three movements were characterfully realized, Houstoun relishing in particular the “Gavotte”, with its mischievous, even suggestive impulses, the music seeming in places to wink knowingly at us before artlessly moving on…….

What a contrast was provided by Dmitri Shostakovich’s monumental conclusion to his Op.87 set of Twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, a set directly inspired by the Well-Tempered Clavier! For many people at the recital whom I spoke with afterwards,  Houstoun’s performance of this D Minor pairing of Prelude and Fugue was was the highlight of the evening’s music-making, so overwhelming it was in its cumulative impact. Particularly impressive, both music- and performance-wise, were the contrasts between and the coming-together of the work’s disparate elements, such as the imperious, organ-like opening of the Prelude, and its tolling-bell conclusion, out of which grew the Fugue’s beginnings, the counterpoints in places so very rapt and ecstatic, like a bird singing at dawn, yet leading to a massive, angst-ridden build-up of interactive splendour. The sounds here at once transcended the solo instrument’s range and scope, yet in context felt as all-encompassing as was obviously intended by its composer – stirring stuff!

In a sense the Liszt transcription of Bach’s G Minor Fantasy and Fugue BWV 542 was the recital’s “return” to the world of the master – though the transcription of this work featured some additional melodic embellishment and harmonic filling-out of the Prelude, the Fugue is more-or-less as Bach wrote it (albeit with Liszt’s dynamic markings). After the Shostakovich had overwhelmed us all, I was wondering how this item would actually stand up, in (to somewhat corrupt a phrase) an “Après le deluge, moi!” sense – but transcriber and performer between them ensured that full justice was done to Bach – an act of “double homage”, really. And when it was all over, Houstoun returned to the platform to assist all of us to “return to our lives” with a serene rendition of the Siciliano movement from Bach’s Flute Sonata BWV 1031, a transcription, incidentally, by another great master, pianist Wilhelm Kempff. I confess I had to afterwards seek assistance regarding the identity of this piece, knowing the melody” but not its actual name!                                                               

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