Houstoun’s second triumphant Beethoven sonata recital

Michael Houstoun – BEETHOVEN reCYCLE 

Piano Sonatas:
G minor, Op 49 No 1;
F major, Op 10 No2;
B flat major,  Op 22;
D minor, Op 31 No 2 (Tempest);
A major, Op 101

Ilott Theatre, Wellington Town Hall

Sunday 14 April, 5pm

Each of the seven concerts in which Michael Houstoun plays all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas is high-lighted by one of the famous ‘name’ sonatas.  It is a device with far more value than mere marketability.

The order of the sonatas
Many in the audience will have wondered whether Houstoun had a theme or some sort of musical pattern in mind in his choice of what to put in each programme: whether these titles found echoes in the other pieces chosen for that particular concert or was there some other common mood or spirit to be heard in each concert, to what extent was there a chronological pattern. 

In his interview with Tim Dodd on RNZ Concert Houstoun said he followed the order he used in the 1993 programmes. The programme booklet reminded us of how they were arrived at. In marginal quotes, Houstoun drew attention to key relationships, some rather recondite, especially when the adjacent pieces were separated by the interval.

Other than that, Houstoun seemed to be guided simply by an instinct about pieces that might fit together or offer suggestive contrasts. Marked contrast seemed to be an important aim; so the three earliest pieces (Op 2) and the last three (Opp 109, 110, 111) are all in the last three recitals in November; while all three of Op 10 and both of the Op 14 sonatas were in the first three programmes. Otherwise, the programmes were nicely varied between early, middle and late works.  

Though I am reviewing only Programme 2, I heard all three in the first weekend and hope to hear all other four recitals. So far a general impression is of somewhat more impassioned performances than those of 20 years ago; tempi often a little faster in quick movements, though similar, perhaps sometimes even slower, in the adagios and andantes.  But more strikingly, an older Houstoun has had the confidence to exploit extremes of dynamics, daringly juxtaposed, to make the most of tempo changes, of playful or portentous passages, prolonged pauses that almost suggesting a mock memory lapse on the part of pianist or a radical change of mind on the part of the composer.

Op 49 No 1, in G minor
The first piece on Sunday evening (Op 49 No 1) hardly lent itself to displays of wit or mockery. Along with its major key companion, this is probably the young pianist’s first taste of Beethoven sonatas, and Houstoun simply played it with elegance and affection, unaffectedly, with rich bass sonorities, discreet rubato and staccato phrases that enlivened the rhythms. 

Op 10 No 2, in F
That atypical piece out of the way, the real young Beethoven arrived with the second sonata of Op 10; written in the mid 1790s when the composer was about 25 and enjoying a spectacular career as a piano virtuoso. This is no work for the Grade 5 piano student; it demands confident rhythmic acrobatics and fast, elaborate ornaments. It also calls for the pianist to find the wit and originality that a young Beethoven was determined to astonish the Viennese public with. There’s really no slow movement as the second, marked Allegretto, is in brisk triple time. The third movement, with its fugal touches, was driven with unremitting, staccato energy, with a conscious wit with a straight face, which had its effect on the audience if not perceptibly on the pianist.

Op 22, in B flat
The next sonata, Op 22 in B flat, as if aware of Houstoun’s interest in related tonalities, created a sense of regression, moving down a fifth (or up a fourth) from the previous sonata in F major. As with all the slightly less familiar pieces, it was strikingly arresting with its Allegro, very con brio, its flying semiquavers whose technical risks Houstoun succeeds in drawing attention to, rather than making them seem easy as do some pianists, not necessarily better ones. But at least, in the second movement, we could be comforted with the calm and beautiful 9/8 Adagio, with a piquant modulation in the middle.  

Beethoven tends to defy facile characterisations. The Minuet has its sweet and untroubled phases, lilting staccato, while at the same time revealing a satanic mask, which is especially explored in the dark Trio section. Houstoun understands and seems to relish these contrasts and states of unease.  A happy tune colours the Finale, a Rondo, which relaxes tensions and might have left the feeling of its being somewhat facile, if this pianist was virtually incapable of playing even the simplest piece without  a certain dignity and profundity.

The Tempest, Op 31 No 2, in D minor
Houstoun played the Tempest Sonata, the second of the three in Op 31, not as the last in the concert, but straight after the interval. It was followed by the one unfamous late sonata, Op 101; some might have felt it as an anti-climax.

However, to plunge straight into The Tempest after the interval was exhilarating; rather more so than the Op 26 which opened the second half before the Waldstein on the Friday evening. The large gestures of this highly dramatic performance that lent credibility to its title ‘Tempest’ (which was not Beethoven’s) alternating between calm and storm.  Beethoven’s early biographer Anton Schindler believed it to be inspired by Shakespeare’s play, while the programme notes offer the now more common idea that it describes Beethoven’s despair at the realisation of his irreversible deafness.

Its key of D minor which had been the vehicle for darkness, grief and satanic characterisation for Mozart (vide Don Giovanni and the Requiem), was bound to call up such emotions in both composer and those of the audience sensitive to tonality.  Mood and tempo changes create a sense of spiritual confusion, and Houstoun’s powerful playing lent weight to such a theory.  

Though the Adagio movement begins without much ado, not many bars pass before darkness descends, a deep thoughtfulness touched with increasing mystery; acceptance of his fate. There’s no Minuet; the last movement is marked innocently, Allegretto, but here is the storm, portrayed with unflagging passion and staccato-driven, motoric rhythms.

Op 101, in A major
I’d expected the follow-on by the Sonata in A of 1816 to offer something of an ambiguous transition, and the beginning was certainly true to its key’s traditional character: light-hearted, untroubled. I always have the feeling, undisguised in Houstoun’s hands, that the first few notes of the opening theme are missing and his playing seemed dramatise the feeling that we had gate-crashed into the middle of something that was a little bit private.  But nothing much does happen in the short first movement except to put us at rest.

The more usual Beethoven emerges in the next movement. The tempo markings are interesting: the first movement is Etwas lebhaft – ‘somewhat fast’, while the second is simply Lebhaft, adding ‘marschmässig’ – march-like; but the difference between them is far more than that, especially in Houstoun’s hands, a springing, frantic, staccato-driven, march.

Another short Adagio (Langsam) precedes the fourth movement (though the way the programme note is set out suggests the two are one movement; and incidentally, what a splendid programme booklet Chamber Music New Zealand has produced, worth every cent!). Houstoun seemed to be feeling his way into this slow and beautiful movement, preparing secretly for the arpeggios that accelerate into the last movement, marked ‘Geschwind’ (‘swift’, a wonderful word that has no comparable feel in English; for me it always calls up the last stanza of Goethe/Schubert’s Erlkönig: “Dem Vater grauset’s, er reitet geschwind”).

In this movement all the pent-up energy, now joyous, come to a climax and is released, though controlled through a certain amount of fugal writing. In spite of its enigmatic earlier aspects, the sonata ends on a note of high excitement, even if there remains a touch of cosmic doubt.

It proved a wonderful conclusion to a great concert, another exposure to a Beethoven pianist with something more to say than mere technical virtuosity and a high level of sensitive musicality.  Do we understand that we are host to a Beethoven interpreter of international stature, who has made a profound exploration of some of the greatest works of art of all time;  who brings a sense of drama to the music, unafraid to reach to the extremes of expression, at which the composer himself would surely have given a gruff sign of approbation? And a  pianist who has continued to explore and discover, who has determinedly pursued his individual perceptions that brings to every episode, every movement, new awakenings and revelations?

For the second time, the overwhelmed audience came to its feet with long applause.

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