Michael Houstoun’s gala welcome to the new Fazioli at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society: Inauguration of new piano

Bach: Italian Concerto BWV 971; Schumann: Kreisleriana, Op 17; Kapustin: Sonata No 2, Op 54; Liszt: Three Petrarch Sonnets and The Fountains of the Villa d’Este

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 30 January 2011, 2.30pm

For a long time, pianists and some of the audiences at the Waikanae Music Society’s concerts had been a little dissatisfied with the piano, given the character of the concert space, a large multi-purpose hall in which sounds could dissipate for those not close to the performers. For more than a decade the society had been accumulating funds to buy a replacement and the time came last year. The achievements of the Waikanae Music Society should be seen as a shining example to all other musical organisations.

In consultation with Michael Houstoun the society settled on a Fazioli and it arrived three days before the concert. This special gala concert, meaning somewhat higher than usual prices, drew a very large audience – almost 500. The piano seemed easily to reach to the back and many remarked on its richness of tone. (For an enchanting insight into Fazioli pianos, let me recommend a chapter in T E Carhart’s The Piano Shop on the Left Bank).

The recital consisted of one piece that Houstoun had played in the past year in at least a couple of recitals in the Wellington region – Schumann’s Kreisleriana, some pieces we’ve not heard from Houstoun, at least for quite along time, and one very singular piece: an extended four movement Sonata in the jazz idiom, by Nikolai Kapustin.

Kapustin is a Ukrainian composer whose training at the Moscow Conservatorium was orthodox enough, but quite soon he fell under the spell of jazz, and was influenced there by someone he called a great teacher, Avrelian Rubakh.

Houstoun’s performance of the second piano sonata (out of eighteen), a many-faceted piece, suggested a myriad of jazz pianists from Earl Hines, though Errol Garner, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson, Chick Corea, even Keith Jarrett – particularly Oscar Peterson, whose amazing virtuosity astonishes both classical and jazz lovers.

Houstoun has recently been exploring jazz, perhaps inspired by his association with Mike Nock, and his feel for it impressed both by its command of the often highly complex rhythms, the star-bursts of cascading notes, with whirl-wind scales and arpeggios, all played as if pouring out as improvisation both spontaneous and inspired. Nevertheless there were times when, in the more bluesy passages such as in the Largo third movement, a feeling of more total relaxation might have been missed, and some driving climaxes fell a little short of the rapturous excitement that a Garner might have created.

Perhaps it is a surprise that Kapustin had no problems pursuing jazz in the Soviet Union where Stalin had proscribed it. But Khrushchev’s reforms created a considerably more comfortable climate for jazz and Radio Free Europe allowed Russian jazz enthusiasts to hear it.

So while Kapustin’s interest was not main-stream at the Moscow Conservatory, what made it acceptable was that it involved no improvisation and its employment of classical forms with jazz influences kept it free from criticism. Kapustin said, “I was entirely free; no problems. My music wasn’t avant-garde.”

The second sonata and other music by Kapustin has been famously recorded by Marc-André Hamelin. I have not heard it but reviews are electrifying, and so evidently is his playing. But I would be surprised if it were to prove much more idiomatic and consummate that what we heard on Sunday.

Judgement about the worth of the music is of course something entirely different. For the moment, it must simply be regarded as a remarkable, highly entertaining piece, brilliantly played.

That is no doubt how Liszt was regarded in the 1830s and 40s, though there were plenty of conservative critics ready to condemn him out-of-hand (there are still some). Houstoun ended his recital with the three Petrarch Sonnets, sensitive, poetic, carefully crafted in terms of dynamics and rubato, but again, not as abandoned as some might have wished, to the romantic excesses that were the thing at the time they were written: and The Fountains at the Villa d’Este; all from the Italian book of Years of Pilgrimage. The latter, insubstantial but enchanting, and played accordingly.

In this two-hundredth anniversary of his birth I hope for some serious exploration of this somewhat neglected and misrepresented composer. Houstoun is an obvious proponent; he has made a fine start.

The recital had begun with a fine and intellectually quite severe reading of Bach’s Italian Concerto (homage to the piano); it was elegant and fluent, rhythmically firm in the first movement, gracious and thoughtful in the second, racing, but perfect in its clarity and spirit in the last movement.

Kreisleriana featured in Houstoun’s programmes last year, the Schumann bicentenary, and both Peter Mechen and I wrote reviews of the performances. Though an important and highly imaginative work, for me it doesn’t have the delight of Carnaval, Papillons, the Abegg Variations, the Symphonic Etudes, or the inspired rapture of the Fantaisie.

But a highly persuasive account of it. I will leave it at that.

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