Paekakariki’s Mulled Wine Concerts: Houstoun and Brown

Beethoven’s cello sonatas, Op 101; Elégie by Fauré; Cello Sonata by Rachmaninov.

Michael Houstoun (piano) and Ashley Brown (cello)

Memorial Hall, Paekakariki

Sunday 28 March  

The second in the 2010 series of Mulled Wine Concerts in one of Wellington’s unique concert spaces, found the sun pouring in the west-facing windows, the sea across the road and Kapiti Island beyond. There was hardly a spare seat.

That two of New Zealand’s finest musicians should be prepared to play in this modest community hall, is evidence of the reputation of the series and the commitment of a devoted audience.

There were no concessions to musical standards. Beethoven’s last two cello sonatas are not very familiar, but reward acquaintance. Though I know them quite well, I am always surprised by passages that I had not remembered, which had failed to take root, perhaps because of the apparently awkward shapes and somewhat dry character of some of the music, especially No 1, in C. They are not quite as immediately memorable or attractive as most of Beethoven’s music; but in the hands of two such committed and gifted musicians, even the most difficult music becomes engrossing. Op 101 was written in 1817, at the start of his last decade that saw the composition of the Choral Symphony, the Missa Solemnis, the last great piano sonatas and string quartets.

The first of the two is a fairly gritty, severe piece, consisting mainly of short phrases that don’t seem to evolve very much; in the Adagio introduction to the second movement the cello adopts a grainy, almost gruff tone while the piano countered with a lighter, decorative quality; the final Allegro vivace emerged as a movement of stark contrasts, with little overt lyricism.

In the second sonata, in D major, the cello relished its charming melodic theme in the optimistic first movement, and in a more sympathetic, lyrical middle movement the cello again enjoyed a real tune that Brown explored in his rich middle register, not concealing its mood of anxiety which the two musicians dispelled in a rhapsodic performance.

The second half consisted of the Rachmaninov sonata, and Fauré’s Élégie, which is a lot more than just the salon piece that its title might suggest. It is a small masterpiece, the clearest evidence, the disturbed rather un-Fauréish middle section that came out as an arresting and profound expression of loss.

Finally they played one of the few great, and much loved, cello sonatas of the 20th century: Rachmaninov’s, written just after his Second Piano Concerto; various episodes, particularly in the piano part, indeed recall details of the concerto.  For that reason, it is easy to hear it at times as a piano sonata with cello obbligato, but the cello is given some highly characteristic passages, for example, in the second movement with its rather unorthodox, low lying theme that swung from the ominous to the cheeky. Here, while the cello had a leading role, the piano’s decorative accompanying figures proved almost the more interesting to listen to.

The third movement was enriched by the cello’s deeply expressive melody and the piano’s later full-blooded work-out. Both players brought a muscular quality to their performance that drew attention to its structure, largely avoiding the temptation for romanticizing or sentimentality; what there was of that, was pretty disciplined. 

The concert maintained this congenial series’ impressive level of musical quality and commitment.

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