Beethoven from Houstoun – recycled with feeling

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:

Michael Houstoun – Beethoven reCYCLE 2013

Beethoven: Sonata no.7 in D, Op.10 no.3

Sonata no.13 in E flat, Op.27 no.1 (Sonata quasi una Fantasia)

Sonata no.9 in E, Op.14 no.1

Sonata no.12 in A flat, Op.26

Sonata no.21 in C, Op.53 ‘Waldstein’

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Ilott Theatre

Friday 12 April 2013


Friday night’s opening concert of  Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven sonatas reCYCLE 2013 in Wellington brought home to me yet again that a live concert is one hundred times better than listening to recordings.

One of the marks of genius in musical composition is that the composers’ works can stand endless recycling; as Michael Houstoun has said, he learns more about Beethoven and more about himself through playing the works again, his first full cycle having been in 1993.

A handsome booklet containing excellent programme notes added to the value of the occasion, it is very useful to have the years of composition of the sonatas printed.  To sit in a pleasant, comfortable auditorium is a bonus.  The selection of the sonatas to be played in each concert, and their order in each programme, is itself a work of art.  Each concert is programmed towards the last sonata to be performed – a major, named work.  As Michael Houstoun said in a recent radio interview, his energy must be retained so that there is sufficient for that dramatic finale.

However, these factors fade into insignificance compared with the utter joy and musical satisfaction of hearing such powerful music performed by a superb pianist.  It is marvellous to us mere mortals how someone can memorise all that music, and be able to transmit his interpretation through his fingers.

The opening sonata, an early one, began with a fast movement played, as throughout, with great facility.  The piece’s classical characteristics were superimposed with Beethoven’s typical contrasting, dramatic dynamics.  The movement’s development was full of fire and sparkle, whereas the second movement (largo e mesto) was very soulful, featuring much rubato, stressing its sombre, even tragic mood.

Despite this being a relatively early work, there was much here that we think of as vintage Beethoven, and typical of his later mastery: tempestuousness, rapid contrasts in mood, quiet passages lovingly fingered.  The third movement minuet returned to a classical idiom; its light and bright trio is almost jolly.  The allegro fourth revealed a luminous and virtuoso mood and technique; an impressive and satisfying work played in an equally impressive and satisfying way.

It was with much delight that I heard the second of the five sonatas on the programme – one I learned many years ago.  Needless to say, I never accomplished the fast tempo in the allegro finale that Houstoun achieved, while what Joy Aberdein, who wrote the programme notes, called the ‘Hey Presto’ at the end, left me completely defeated.  Much shorter than the preceding sonata, its calm, logical opening does nothing to prepare its audience for the outbursts to follow.

It was delightful to hear and watch this sonata being played so well.  The adagio slow movement was indeed ‘con expressione’, full of feeling and philosophy, while the dynamic and dramatic final movement had the odd wrong note or two – who cares?

The less familiar no.9 combined delicacy and strength in its first movement, played very fast by Michael Houstoun, his fluency and facility taking my breath away.  Just occasionally a loud note made an unpleasant reverberation – probably the fault of the acoustic rather than of piano or pianist.  Otherwise, the piano always sounded good; it isn’t the case with all pianists or all pianos.

This sonata is lighter in character than the previous two, but was as much appreciated by the attentive audience that packed the Ilott.

After the interval, the twelfth sonata’s slow start led into a set of variations which not only demonstrated the wonderful interplay of voices that Beethoven created, but also the great attention to detail that typifies Houstoun’s mature playing – no note is wasted.  Each one speaks its part with clarity.  Revealed too, was the lovely variety of touch, dynamics and tempi that this pianist brings to bear.

I was almost never aware of the sustaining pedal; this is the way it should be.  The playing is crisp with never a hint of sloppiness.

The scherzo second movement was sparkling, almost like a folk dance.  What a contrast, then, to the funeral march third movement!  Its sombre, mournful mood is like that of one of Schubert’s darker, more solemn lieder.

There were cascades of ecstasy in the allegro finale.  It was almost jolly by comparison with the previous movement – somewhat like a Haydn allegro in feeling, with a quiet, rather abrupt ending.

The pièce de resistance of the recital was the well-known ‘Waldstein’ sonata, named for its dedicatee, Count Ferdinand von Waldstein, one of Beethoven’s many aristocratic friends and patrons.

The allegro con brio first movement was certainly that, with high-speed flourishes, especially at the end.  The playing was full of subtlety and variety.  Even though it now sounds like an old friend, how exciting it must have sounded to its first hearers!  Not that there was anything stale about this performance – far from it.

The short slow movement came as such a contrast to what we had just heard.  Like so much else of Beethoven’s music, it explores entirely new territory, in an entirely new way.  Its way of anticipating the rondo is spine-tingling.  The allegretto rondo follows on directly, with its energetic interplay, and then the prestissimo.  What a pace!  There was interesting use of the pedal in the quiet, contemplative passages with their arpeggio-like patterns in all manner of keys – this technique was in accodance with Beethoven’s instructions.

As for Michael Houstoun – what technique!  What musicality!  What a treat!  Yet it is but part one of a seven-part treat.  It was an astonishing start, with five sonatas in one concert – two hours of piano playing, and the very demanding long last movement of the Waldstein to finish with.

So much variety!   The concert demonstrated the brilliance of Beethoven and the brilliance of Houstoun.  At the end, the audience, perhaps the quietest and most attentive I have ever experienced, rose to its feet in appreciation of both.

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