Michael Houstoun at 60 – divining the depths of the Diabellis

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

Michael Houstoun – 60th Birthday Recital

BEETHOVEN – 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli Op.120

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Saturday 20th October 2012

It was probably pianist Artur Schnabel’s droll wit (documented elsewhere) which gave rise to the remark he made in a letter to his wife regarding the audience at a performance he gave in Spain of Beethoven’s “Diabelli” Variations – “I am the only person here who is enjoying this, and I get the money – they pay, and have to suffer!”

A once-fashionable thought was, of course, that suffering was good for the soul; however, in Beethoven’s music, and especially in these variations, the moods are so varied and wide-ranging that any discomfort would surely be just a small part of a myriad of emotions, each with its own particular kind of nourishment for the spirit.

At Michael Houstoun’s Ilott Theatre birthday recital of these variations on what the composer called a “cobbler’s patch” of a tune, it seemed that things such as enjoyment, excitement, bliss, profundity and humour were paramount, rather than any hint of suffering. From those very first utterances, Diabelli’s garrulous little waltz seemed at once deftly placed and somehow ennobled – under Houstoun’s fingers the repetitive banalities grew a sequence of arches, through which the first of Beethoven’s variations then proudly and imposingly made its way.

Throughout this parade of wonderfully quirky characterizations Houstoun’s playing kept certain unities alive and flowing –  as per usual with him, nothing was fudged or ill-defined, the focus always sharp and bright, no matter how varied the touch or wide-ranging the dynamics. And at once his clarity of expression kept the structure taut and seemed to enlarge the music’s parameters of utterance.

That for me was Houstoun’s great achievement in this performance, making something distinctive and memorable of each of the individual variations, but keeping each within a greater, underlying flow of overall purpose. I would be prepared to stick my neck out a bit, here, and suggest that a younger Michael Houstoun would have unequivocally made his listeners aware of the music’s eventual destination, but allowed each of the variations less individual character, lest any of them stepped out of line or broke ranks. Here, the pianist’s maturity and understanding allowed us to experience the best of both worlds.

As commentator William Kindermann points out, these variations harbour great tensions of complexity which arise between Diabelli’s commonplace theme and the unlimited possibilities unleashed by Beethoven – and performances which attempt to “smooth out” or “call to order” the extremes of firstly banality and primitive impulse, and then profundity and intellectual severity don’t seem to me to completely “chart the course” of Beethoven’s achievement.

My notes on Houstoun’s performance suggest anything but a smooth ride or a regimented display – I’ve already described that feeling of some kind of opening grand processional by the composer into the world of the “cobbler’s-patch” waltz, which the pianist’s playing suggested; and other impressions were quick to follow – for example, Variation Four (Un poco piu vivace) was here beautifully sculptured movement, somehow finely-chiselled strength and liquid flow at the same time, while Variation Six (Allegro vivace) hurled out the trills both in treble and bass, the instrument in places roaring excitingly! By contrast Variation Fourteen (Grave e maestoso) brought before us a rich cortege with beautifully augmented resonances and nicely-terraced dynamics.

As to the underlying flow, Houstoun took us from this quasi-orchestral realization through the following five variations to the nineteenth’s Presto with nicely theatrical timing that made the most of both continuities and contrasts. The grave e maestoso was energized with the military strut of the following presto scherzando, which stimulated ensuing high-spirited scamperings, hard on its heels, of both of the succeeding Allegros, and then fell into a kind of “Well, thank goodness THEY’VE gone!” poco moderato interlude that resulted in a “That’s what YOU think!” rejoiner with Variation Nineteen’s aforementioned Presto.

Notes scribbled during a performance can take up an awful lot of space, as here – in the pages of his Die Neue Zeitschrift für Musik journal, Robert Schumann could as a critic indulge his fancy freely in describing fleeting, spontaneous impressions suggested by both his own and other people’s music – those of us less endowed with insight have to be rather more circumspect! But reading these in situ thoughts of mine brought back the concentration and purpose that Houstoun brought to his traversal of the music, truly making it his own.

Our feelings concerning the pianist’s identification with Beethoven’s world were nicely activated by a short film before the recital, in which Houstoun talked about his lifelong relationship with the music, beginning with an account of a very specific “moment” for him involving a recording of the great “Appassionata” Sonata (educationalists will recognize a well-documented learning phenomenon, the “readiness” principle, here). The film valuably caught something directly and very naturally expressed, the beginnings of a musician’s journey whose progress up to and including the performance which followed had obviously reached a stellar plateau of achievement.

Rounding off the event was a presentation to Michael Houstoun at the performance’s conclusion by June Clifford, former Chairperson of the Chamber Music New Zealand Trust Board, marking both the pianist’s birthday and the extent of his artistic achievements in tandem with Chamber Music New Zealand over the years. There was no doubt in anybody’s mind regarding the appropriateness and significance of such an award – we in the audience felt both thrilled and honoured to be present at both music and history being made so very resplendently.





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