Houstoun honours Chopin and Schumann magnificently at Paekakariki

Mulled Wine Concert: Michael Houstoun (piano) in Schumann and Chopin

Schumann: Arabesque Op 18, Kreisleriana, Op 16; Chopin: Sonata in B flat minor, Op 35; Nocturnes Op 37, Nos 1 and 2; Etudes Op 25 Nos 1, 7, 5, 12

Memorial Hall, Paekakariki

Sunday 8 August 2.30pm

This is exactly the kind of concert I expect to mark important anniversaries of two of the world’s great composers: an intelligent selection of some of the two composers’ most representative and enjoyable music. Naturally, a poll of the audience would throw up many other works that ‘should’ have been included.

That would yield a programme lasting several days.

Schumann’s Arabesque is popular and pretty well-known, but Kreisleriana is less so and that perhaps, I remark cynically, is why it is often rated among his finest piano works; it is certainly one of the most difficult to bring off.

Houstoun’s own note about it advises the audience not to trouble with the literary reference of the title – a novel and other stories by E T A Hoffmann; the subject, an eccentric, passionate musician. If you’re there just for the music: correct. But for many of us, all the connections, literary, artistic, religious, sociological and so on, lead towards interesting insights and help furnish the mind.

The Chopin in the second half may have been the more familiar and delightful to the audience, but personally, Schumann often does just a little more for me. Kreisleriana was the last of his major piano works that I came to know, and live performances have been rare. One first falls for Carnaval and the Fantasia, Papillons and the Symphonic Studies, then the Kinderszenen, and much later, Davidsbündlertänze and Faschingsschwank aus Wien, before the less overt attractions of Kreiselriana start to absorb you.

This was no ordinary performance. Houstoun has clearly lived with it, thought about its manifold moods and worked on its technical problems for a long time, so that it emerged utterly engrossing, emotionally quixotic, kaleidoscopic, unorthodox and often plain beautiful.

The transitions between the vividly contrasted Eusebius and Florestan sections, were so clear, as the journey passed through all the eight pieces from the opening, marked Ausserst bewegt – extremely excitable, or molto agitato – to a slightly more gentle lyrical central section, dreamy, employing themes that speak in the private language of his Schumann’s  two personas as well as of his love, Clara.

The challenge for the pianist is to find a sense of continuity and a connected narrative within each movement, as the tempo, the mood, the tonality, the rhythms constantly change and surprise you. Quite soon I found myself with the words ‘commanding’, ‘authoritative’, ‘multitudinous’ in my head.

So the strength of this performance lay in the pianist’s success in creating and maintaining a feeling of integrity, utter absorption though the half-hour long piece.

The second section, Sehr innig und night zu rasch – very reflective and not too fast – opening with short-lived meditative, rising and falling phrases, followed by a wild Intermezzo in which the left hand is all over the keyboard; then a spacious statement of the main tune, another more rhythmic Intermezzo before returning to the initial material. It is such an extended, fully-formed movement, in several sections, that it’s surprising that it hasn’t been taken out as a separate concert piece.

The fourth movement is marked very slow, its character is rambling and expansive and the slow-paced melody performance was beautifully played.  And finally, it might have come as surprise that a pianist with such a command of the more profound things, could find such gaiety and playfulness in the dotted rhythms of the last movement – Schnell und Spielend – and nothing is more surprising than its simple, vanishing ending.

Though the delicacy and delight of his Arabesque should have prepared us for all of that.

The programme notes, by Michael Houstoun, were illuminating; artists ought to be encouraged to write their own programme notes for there are often matters that they could bring interesting to listeners’ notice. Here, it would have been useful if the details of the movements of Kreisleriana had been listed, with their timings, as breaks between movements and between the sections of each are not always self-evident.

The second half was all Chopin, and details of the Sonata’s movements, and of each Prelude and Etude were given. The second Piano Sonata seems to some commentators like four distinct pieces and I think that is a valid proposition; as little seems to connect them as might connect the four Ballades or Schubert’s two sets of Impromptus.

There was no mistaking the openness and full-bloodedness of the performance as a whole. In the first movement Houstoun’s playing gave full expession to the ebullience beneath its heroic and sometimes lyrical exterior; and it became open and urgent in the Scherzo. The third movement only becomes funereal in its latter stages; earlier, there was grandeur and in the central section a sanguine singing character. In this sonata however, I was left with the feelings both of its disparateness and its being still ‘work-in-progress’ in Houstoun’s hands.

The two Nocturnes of Op 37 make an attractive pair, the first steady, sober, pensive, the second more rapturous and rhythmic.

And four Etudes from the second set – Op 25, linked according to the pianist’s own feeling about their contrasting characters rather than the keys (not that Chopin grouped them by key sequence). The keys were not listed; in the order played: A flat, C sharp minor, E minor and No 12 in C minor. No 7 in C sharp minor is the longest of the group and Houstoun created a seemingly large-scale dramatic scena of it with a fortissimo climax in the middle. Of course, the last Etude, for a reason that rather escapes me, called ‘Ocean’, a flawless, virtuosic tour de force, raised the roof and brought long applause for this thrilling ending to a very satisfying and entertaining recital.

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