Schubert from Houstoun at Paekakariki – Matching Poesies

SCHUBERT – Piano Sonata in G Major D.894 / Piano Sonata in B-flat D.960

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Mulled Wine Concert Series / Memorial Hall, Paekakariki

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

Waiting outside the Memorial Hall in a July afternoon’s wintry sunshine at Paekakariki was for me a kind of poetry in itself, colored partly by the expectation of hearing live performances of two of Schubert’s greatest piano sonatas, but also by the ambience of the open spaces, rugged hills to the east, and the beach and distantly lovely Kapiti Island to the west. I’ll doubtless be accused of “event-dropping” here, but I was reminded by all of this of my visit to the Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk (too many years previously that I care to number!), where one finds a similar “homely” aspect to many of the concert venues, and the same rural outdoor “far-from-the-big-city” atmosphere that gives to the whole enterprise such distinction.

Inside the hall at Paekakariki, the excitement-buzz was palpable, the sense of an occasion somehow made more manifest by the community-hall nature of the venue – a kind of “music is where you find it” spirit that, as I’ve said, heightens the special nature of the event. I was not aware of Michael Houstoun having any previous significant association with the solo piano music of Schubert, and so this for me seemed to add to the concert’s specialness. Naturally, I knew Houstoun had recently performed with tenor Keith Lewis the great “Winterreise” song-cycle, as well as the “Trout” Quintet as part of Chamber Music New Zealand’s “Schubertiade” – so I found myself keenly anticipating the pianist bringing his own unique qualities as a performer to music I’ve loved for much of my listening life.

First up, and I think rightly so, was the G Major Sonata D.894. Like its recital companion, the B-flat Sonata, it’s a work whose first movement alone, when played with the repeat can dwarf in sheer size and scope the movements which follow, especially in the hands of an interpreter who emphasizes the music’s potential for what Robert Schumann famously called its “heavenly length”. Perhaps taking its cue from Schumann’s observation, there’s a school of interpretation that advocates the most spacious of tempi over certain of Schubert’s movements, more pronounced, I think, than with any other classical composer. But as with all great music, there are diametrically opposed notions regarding how it should be played, ranging from those rooted in abstraction and severity of symphonic form, to ideas which advance the feeling that Schubert’s work should all be thought of as subservient to song, since (following this line of thinking) he was a lyricist, and not symphonic in outlook, and that his structures should be regarded as little more than somewhat naively-extended melodies.

Michael Houstoun’s playing of the sonata’s opening suggested a course that took into account both structural awareness and lyrical impulse on the composer’s part. We heard at the outset phrases given plenty of air and space, richly-toned and with leading lines sung out, along with strong, well-focused chordings and clearly-etched melodic patterns, suggesting that the pianist took the idea of Schubert the long-term symphonic thinker seriously, though without, it must be said, going to the extremes of profundity attempted by the likes of pianist Sviatoslav Richter. Houstoun, to my ears, sought from within the movement a judicious balance between profundity and momentum that found the best of both the intellectual and emotional worlds of the music. Throughout the introductory paragraphs he differentiated the different voices with considerable sensitivity, withdrawing his tone for the minor-key utterance, and warming it with slightly more body for its repetition in the major mode – as well, he beautifully energized the music at the point where it consciously begins to pulsate, the melody subtly detailed (a slight finger-slip in the filigree right-handed runs possibly the result of the phrasing being, I felt, a shade too “stiff”, more an etched pattern than a dance), the rhythm given sufficient girth to remain relatively light upon its feet. I thought Houstoun’s observation of the repeat just that wee bit more exploratory and expansive – if, this time round, the filigree runs in the right hand seemed freer and more dance-like, there was also an added hymn-like quality to some of the more chordal utterances, very much a feeling, one could say, of a “song of the earth”.

The rest of the movement was as fine in Houstoun’s hands, with only a touch of “bluntness” at some of the phrase-ends suggesting that there were still a couple of corners of the work he hadn’t yet negotiated with complete ease. Largely his approach to the darker, stormier development was lean and forward-looking, more agitated than tragic in feeling, building up the chordal sequences impressively, but playing with translucent tones that never threatened to crush the music under its own weight. The lead-back to the opening was nicely “breathed”, as was the coda, the music’s “homecoming” aspect given plenty of songful feeling. The slow movement’s first few phrases energized the stasis of the first movement’s conclusion, almost too much so, I thought at first, thinking that those wonderful phrases weren’t being encouraged to “flower” with sufficient poetry – but as the music progressed, so did I warm more to the playing, thanks to the flexibility and subtlety of the pianist’s rubato. The music’s key-change brought a big-boned contrast, but also some beautifully pliant phrasings in the gentler responses – Houstoun actually surprised me with his readiness to yield in places, getting a lot out of the music with his beautifully nuanced contourings.

I liked the Scherzo’s characterful dancings, the pianist bringing out the music’s lilting qualities and playing the grace-notes that punctuate the line with great “point” and care. He illuminated the melodic line of the Trio with nicely-stressed harmonies and counter-lines, enjoying the music’s contrasts as the scherzo’s chords lurched back into the soundscape. As for the finale, the playing had all the rhythmic buoyancy one could have wished for (was there a touch of hesitancy over the transition into the “running” sequence?), with everything nicely pointed and dovetailed; and then, during the stormier minor-key sequences, plenty of invigorating “schwung” to muscle up the interplay and keep the momentum going right through to the opening’s return. After these exertions, the coda was like balm for the senses, a hugely satisfied exhalation which Schubert (and Houstoun) seemed to invite all of us to join in with. At the end of all of this there was general pleasure in demonstrating our appreciation of the performance, though I have to say that Houstoun’s playing of the sonata divided opinion in my party, a situation which always invigorates discussion and sharpens all kinds of critical evaluations, both in the process and its conclusions. A friend whose opinion I respect thought the playing up to this point “all head and no heart”. But I couldn’t agree, as witness what I’ve written so far; and, for myself, I thought it was a truly praiseworthy performance.

Having said this, I had to admit, at the conclusion of the concert’s second half, that the B-flat Sonata demonstrated Houstoun’s interpretative depth and identification with the music to an extent that the G Major’s performance, good though it was, didn’t quite achieve. From first note to last, Schubert’s final and greatest piano sonata brought out what I felt was a powerful and comprehensive understanding on the pianist’s part. Even when I wanted parts of the music played a slightly different way (softer, more yielding paragraphs in one or two places), Houstoun’s conviction regarding what he was doing was such at the time that his interpretation carried all before it, the result being an entirely convincing and marvellously played performance.

Right from the beginning, the music seemed to carry whole worlds of inward feeling, Houstoun’s treatment of the chordal melody sounding and feeling almost Brucknerian in its weighty expansiveness, the vistas opening up to accommodate the tones generated by those big repeated chords which grow beneath the melody’s repetition. Not as nuanced as, and much more insistent than the music for the G major Sonata, these were more direct and forthright sounds, dealing, as Houstoun himself would probably say, in fundamental material – and no more so than at the repeat, where it might seem to the uninitiated listener as though the basic fabric of the music is being threatened by some kind of “horror from the deep” – a critical episode in the work’s discourse, here brought off by the pianist with suitably awe-inspiring power and concentration. The development brought layer upon layer of intensification, leading to what I’ve always regarded as the “stricken” passage, repeated chords sounded underneath a minor-key melody, before the opening theme returns, stalked by its trill ominously rumbling away in the bass. By the time the opening was properly reconstituted, the work had truly become “road music”, the vistas opened right out in Houstoun’s hands, the momentum kept up, the soul inexorably continuing upon its journey, bequeathing us those richly voiced chords at the movement’s end.

What a lovely colour Houstoun gave the opening of the slow movement! – its tolling bell aspect was beautifully and sensitively weighted, equivocally poised between worlds of foreboding and resignation. The music carried easefully into the major-key episode, the pianist’s rhythmic trajectories both focused and flexible throughout. Contrasting with this was the scherzo’s lightness of touch, set around and about an angular trio with Houstoun bringing out some startlingly effective bass-line accents. The playful and propulsive finale also harboured contrasting energies, the explosive mid-stream outbursts very much in keeping with the movement’s volatile character, as were the angular polyphonics leading up to the final energy-gathering pauses, and the torrents of abandonment which concluded the work. And my friend’s reaction to Houstoun’s playing of the B-flat Sonata? – words to the effect of “Well, he really nailed that one!”…..and when all’s said and done, I can’t really sum it up better than that!

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