Michael Houstoun’s musical journeyings at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society Inc.

MICHAEL HOUSTOUN plays music by Jenny McLeod and JS Bach

McLEOD – Six Tone Clock Pieces Nos.19-24 (world premiere)

JS BACH – Goldberg Variations

Memorial Hall, Waikanae

Sunday 12th February 2012

In her notes for the program composer Jenny McLeod pays a heartfelt tribute to the occasion and to those taking part, reserving special thanks for Michael Houstoun. Her words “a musician of such immense gifts, high reputation and tireless dedication” would have surely been echoed by those present at the recital, as we were able to sense in Houstoun’s playing something of McLeod’s “pleasure and privilege” in writing music for him to perform.

This music was “Six Tone Clock Pieces”, and was the culmination for the composer of over twenty years of work, this set completing a larger collection of twenty-four pieces. McLeod tells us that “Tone Clock” refers to a chromatic harmonic theory pioneered by Dutch composer Peter Schat, one which she adapted for her own purposes.

Having explained in her notes that composers such as Bach, Chopin and Debussy also wrote pieces in groups or multiples of 12, based on the subdivision of the keyboard into twelve semitones, McLeod dismissed further theoretical explanation of the music’s organization as “essentially of interest only to composers”, adding that she believed “structural coherence can be sensed intuitively by the listener”. Well stated.

The individual movements are evocatively titled, though McLeod admitted that these “names for things” arrived sometimes months after the music had been completed. She talked about precedents for such descriptions set by people like Debussy and Messiaen, and obviously regards her own music as similarly able to stand and be appreciated on its own unadorned merits. I did, I confess, find each of the titles a helpful starting-point for my listening fancies.

The first piece, Moon, Night Birds, Dark Pools, mixed evocation and delineation with great skill (Houstoun an ideal interpreter for such a blend of opposing sound-impulses), our sensibilities taken to the edges of a world of chromatic nocturnal fancies but keeping our status intact as spectators rather than participants in the scenario. Set against these stillnesses was the bustling energy-in-miniature of Te Kapowai (Dragonfly), which then gave way to deeper-voiced portents of oncoming day (Early Dawn to Sunrise-Earthfall), a primeval chorus of impulses gradually awakening the earth’s light, the piano tones suffusing the listener with richly golden energies, Messiaen-like in their insistence.

Haka opened darkly, the music thrustful and threatening at first, before the jazzy off-beat rhythms began rubbing shoulders with more playful figurations. Houstoun skillfully controlled the vacillating light-and-dark moods of the music, then allowed the silences of the disturbed land to creep slowly backwards. The next piece, Pyramids, Symmetries, Crevices of Sleep reminded me on paper of Debussy’s Canope, a composer’s parallel meditation upon an object honouring the dead. Of the pieces, I found this the most abstracted and self-contained, appropriately enigmatic, even more so than the final Dream Waves, with its “surfing the planet” subtitle, whose angularities and contrasts were more readily engaging on a visceral level for this listener.

At a first hearing I was fascinated by the variety of the piano-writing, the titles of the individual pieces giving me some intriguing contexts in which to place the sounds. I thought the music in general terms intensified in abstraction as piece followed piece, the last two of the set very determinedly stating their independence of any kind of glib representation whatever. Incidentally, the first eleven from the complete set of Tone Clock Pieces can be heard on a Waiteata Music Press disc (WTA 005)  available from either The Centre For New Zealand Music (SOUNZ) or the New Zealand School of Music. I haven’t yet gone back to these earlier pieces to listen, but it will be fascinating to compare them with these latest sounds of the composer’s.

Michael Houstoun gave us rather more familiar fare after the interval, a work that’s recognized as one of the cornerstones of Western keyboard literature, JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations.  This was a performance which I thought was taken in a single great breath, one whose flow of substance never let up, right to the point where Houstoun allowed the final restatement of the simple “Goldberg” theme to steal in even before the jollity of the concluding Quodlibet had finished resounding in our ears – a magical moment.

Of course, this s a work that demands a considerable amount of ebb and flow of mood and motion from the player; and Houstoun’s achievement was to encompass the enormity of variety between these moods, while keeping the audience’s interest riveted (on the face of things, an ironic circumstance with a work whose original purpose was popularly supposed to be that of putting a nobleman to sleep!). The evidence actually suggests that the Count Von Keyserlingk wanted not “a sleeping draught” as is popularly supposed, but music “soothing and cheerful in character” for his young chamber harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, to play. This would account for the good-humored, even robust nature of the final Quodlibet, with its menage of well-known, characterful melodies, more suitable for a kind of cheerful sing-a-long than a cure for insomnia.

Throughout I thought Houstoun’s different emphases of rhythm, touch and tone-colour illuminated each of the variations. One would hardly expect a note-perfect performance of such a colossal undertaking, but the very few inaccuracies and the one-or-two rhythmic uncertainties that sounded had that “spots on the sun” quality with which commentators used to characterized wrong notes played by Alfred Cortot. Basically, Houstoun made every note sound as though it mattered – there was nothing of the mechanus about his playing, but always a strong undertow of something organic – a varied terrain, but one with a living spinal chord.

To mention highlights of the playing might seem to be placing trees in the way of the forest – nevertheless, I found the buoyancy of Houstoun’s delivery in the energetic variations created a real sense of “schwung” – the very first variation had strut and poise, No.15 had marvellously energetic orchestral dialogues and rapid-fire triplets, terrific scampering momentum was generated in No.18, and the whirl of further triplets made No.27 an exhilarating and vertiginous experience. As for some of the slower, grander, or more meditative pieces, these were delivered with a focus and concentration which played their part in ennobling the whole work. Longest and slowest of these was No.25, in which the music takes performer and listener to depths of feeling and self-awareness that give the “return to higher ground” an unforgettable, life-changing poignancy. The aria itself was strong and confident at the outset, then other-worldly and meditative at the very end, as if spent from having finished recounting a lifetime’s experience.

Michael Houstoun is repeating this program at Upper Hutt’s Expressions Theatre on Monday 16th April. For those who couldn’t get to this Waikanae concert, I would say that going to Upper Hutt to hear two very different, but equally thought-provoking works marvellously played would be, on many different levels, a very worthwhile journey.