Michael Houstoun in recital – in Wellington!

Michael Houstoun (piano)

JS BACH – Prelude No.1 in C Major BWV 846 / SCHUMANN – Arabeske Op.18 / Kreisleriana Op.16

CHOPIN – Sonata in B-flat minor (“Funeral March”) Op.35 / Two Nocturnes Op.37 / Four Etudes Op.25 Nos 1, 5, 7, and 12

Ilott Theatre, Town Hall, Wellington

Sunday 29th August 2010

Who says piano recitals can’t pack ’em in any more? True, if any pianist can here in Wellington, Michael Houstoun can, and especially so when the programme features the music of two composers whose spirit seems to exemplify music’s Romantic Age. This concert was a celebration of the year 1810, during which both Chopin and Schumann were born, Michael Houstoun unexpectedly and cleverly drawing these otherwise disparate figures together by way of JS Bach, whose music both of these composers revered. So we were given Bach’s celestial C Major Prelude from Book One of the Well-Tempered Clavier by way of introduction to the recital proper, the music pausing briefly to draw breath at the Prelude’s end before Houstoun continued with the equally radiant opening to Schumann’s Arabesque.

One of the characteristics of Schumann’s music is its extraordinary pliancy, so that, more than many other composers’ music, his responds equally well to so many different interpretative viewpoints. Perhaps it’s the subjective nature of much of it, to which musicians connect more on an individual and spontaneous basis than a preconceived and predictable one, resulting in wider performance parameters being explored regarding the music’s interpretation. Consequently, there emerges no “way” to play Schumann, other than to convey a sense of identification and engagement with the composer and his world. Reading between the lines of Michael Houstoun’s thoughtful programme notes for the recital, one senses, intriguingly, on his part a slightly more ready inclination to “connect” with Schumann than with Chopin, though in practice it’s a near thing. I would have hazarded a guess that Houstoun might have felt more at home with the Polish composer’s ultra-refined syntheses of structure and feeling than his German contemporary’s often abstruse flights of fancy – so I was delighted to find myself drawn in to many of the moods he evoked with his performance of Kreisleriana, one of Schumann’s most enigmatic creations.

Expertly played though it was, I didn’t immediately warm to the pianist’s way with the Arabesque which almost immediately followed the Bach – though he exhibited great control and evenness of touch, he didn’t for me “dream” enough of the music, giving us a strong, unequivocal opening, but not seeming interested in bringing out the almost “question-and-answer” manner of the phrases, the poetical ruminations, as it were. The first interlude was strongly, almost passionately voiced, and did relax for a few measures just before returning to the main running theme, the two impulses beautifully married for the reprise. I liked the “kick” with which he brought the second interlude into being, though his tone hardened in places of emphasis, too much so, I thought, in relation to the gentleness of the whole work, though his return to the main theme was again finely-judged, and the coda of the piece was given a winning mix of strength and poetic feeling.

Kreisleriana was, of course, an entirely different matter; and I thought the pianist’s almost headlong plunge into the tempestuous opening an approach the composer would have approved of, the occasional split note adding to the sense of wildness, the music seemingly unnerved by its own evocations, and wanting to climb upwards out of the maelstrom of raw emotion towards the light. Houstoun’s way with the wondrous contrasting second piece, marked “Very inwardly and not too quickly”, gave the poetical atmosphere enough space to generate a rich, warm ambience via the wonderful forest-echoing “hunting-horn” theme, and the beautifully harmonised scale passages growing out of the theme’s resonances – though the brief intermezzi which punctuate the mood kept their energies within bounds, suggesting more an architect’s than a poet’s view of the whole structure. The pianist also found a telling contrast between sections three and four, the pure emotion of the latter beautifully breathed after the previous piece’s agitations, and the subsequent quickening of the pulse nicely judged – for me, one of several interpretative highlights of the performance.

Schumann’s dogged insistence dominated the next episode, Houstoun controlling the composer’s obsessiveness judiciously so that none of the repetitive figures outstayed their welcome. Another beautifully-realised piece was the following folkish lullaby (sehr langsam – very slowly), the achingly nostalgic left-hand theme seeming to grow out of the earth, as it were, Houstoun giving the ambience the dark, rich tones requited by the music’s suggestiveness. After the next piece’s wild, headlong opening, galloping through tempestuous storms, Houstoun brought the agitations under control with some nicely gradated chords, leading to the work’s final, most enigmatic section, the composer’s marking schnell und spielend (fast and playful) barely hinting at the music’s darker, more equivocal undercurrents. Houstoun brought these out beautifully, giving the elfin melody a slightly disembodied tonal character, and beautifully weighting the left hand so that the often maverick rhythmic stresses of the bass notes had a properly disturbing effect. In general, I thought the interpretation of the whole very satisfying, more thoughtfully and subtly realised by the pianist than given by him overt extremes of mood, colour and energy.

In a sense, the Chopin “Funeral March” Sonata which followed after the interval posed similar interpretative problems to Kreisleriana – the difficulty being how to bring some kind of coherence to a series of overtly unconnected “episodes” strung together to form an overall scheme – though Michael Houstoun hit the nail fairly on the head in his notes when he spoke about “a certain spirit or tone which serves to unify” in relation to both works. Somewhat ironically, it was Schumann who complained in a critical notice about Chopin’s Sonata that “he has simply yoked together four of his wildest offspring”; although it was the bestowment of the title “Sonata” on the work that gave the hypersensitive critic of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik misgivings, not the music itself. Houstoun sought to keep the music directional by refusing to make too much of any contrasts of tempo or dynamics throughout the first movement, the most surprising aspect of which was the pianist’s incorporating the very beginning of the work in the repeat, something which I’d not heard done before. The music’s strong undertow was maintained throughout, reducing the work’s propensity for dramatic contrast, but tightening the musical argument and keeping a sense of purposeful forward motion paramount.

Contrast was the order of the day with the Scherzo, in Houstoun’s hands the opening section big, energetic and darkly-wrought, before being almost completely disarmed by the sweetness of the ballade-like Trio, with only the occasional left-hand trills suggesting any hint of continuing unease. I fancied I heard some kind of momentary harmonic re-arrangement at the agitated opening’s reprise, though it may have been my ears playing tricks with my memory – in any case, a mere detail, swept away by Houstoun’s bringing out of the power and purpose of the whole. Some extraneous deep-toned thuds from without accompanied the hushed opening of the famous “Funeral March”, to no matter – the pianist’s power and concentration carried the day, the playing perhaps less antiphonal than some performances I’ve heard, but just as telling in effect. Houstoun seemed to integrate the Trio into the March, making it less of an inward escape to another realm than a more lyrical manifestation of the same force propelling time and life onwards, the repeats helping to intensify this feeling. Upon the march’s return, one realised how differently Chopin felt about life and death – Houstoun’s control made the reappearance of the cortège and its ghostly dissolution a salutary experience.

What Houstoun then did with the finale was interesting – played attacca, the sinuous strands of agitation were kept clear and largely unpedalled, refusing the music any kind of impressionistic wash or colouristic atmosphere, making the notes themselves do the work and create the musical effect. Those used to listening to the highly theatrical realisations of people such as Cortot, Rachmaninov and (more lately) Martha Argerich would have found Houstoun’s determinedly unvarnished realisation either rather too earthbound or remarkably singular in effect – rather like a long-forgotten extra item from out of Mussorgsky’s Pictures from an Exhibition, or something. Here, it was of a piece with the rest of the sonata – coherent, focused, and cumulatively powerful in effect.

Strangely I enjoyed Houstoun’s playing of the two Nocturnes for probably quite perverse reasons – in a sense I would rather have a more instinctively poetic player to be my guide were I wanting to hear these extraordinary pieces; but I was amazed, especially in the case of the second of the two Op.37 Nocturnes, as to how “modern” the composer’s harmonic progressions sounded when laid bare by playing which emphasised the piece’s structure and inner constituent workings, rather than colour and a singing line. I would use the word “chiselled” to describe the way the opening of Op.37 No.1 was presented, the contourings very precise, and the sonorities in the trio section seamlessly organ-like. But surely the dynamic contrasts were raked too steeply at the reprise of the main theme – does moonlight come from behind the clouds as abruptly as that? Even so, I was made to listen to the barcarolle-like No.2 with what seemed like freshly-programmed ears.

Four Etudes from the composer’s Op.25 concluded the recital, judiciously chosen by Michael Houstoun to give a kind of “sonata” effect, perhaps (four more of Chopin’s wildest?), the first the beautiful Aeolian Harp in A-flat, the pianist getting a lovely “rolling” effect with the notes, and an especially feathery quality at the end. The C-sharp Minor No.7 followed almost without a break, its  melody beautifully “terraced” between the hands, building up an almost orchestral effect on places, with swirling figurations and massive chordings. The oddly “galumphing” No.5 in E Minor was the “scherzo”, with its Lisztian trio, Houstoun’s brilliant filigree right-hand work set against sonorous left-hand melody to great effect; while the final etude’s great ferment of whirling “Rachmaninovian” C Minor arpeggios glinted and flashed their melodic notes in truly virtuoso style.

All credit to Michael Houstoun for celebrating Schumann and Chopin so resplendently, and to Wellington Chamber Music for bringing to Wellingtonians that sadly diminishing rarity, a full-blooded piano recital. Some of the world’s greatest music (such as we heard this afternoon) deserves much more of Houstoun’s kind of advocacy and his near-capacity audience’s whole-hearted support.

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