Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
Michael Houstoun (piano) – Beethoven ReCycle 2013
Sonata No.20 in G Op.49 No.2 / Sonata No.3 in C Op.2 No.3
Sonata No.24 in F-sharp Op.78 / Sonata No.16 in G Op.31 No.1
Sonata No.23 in F Minor Op.57 “Appassionata”
Town Hall, Wellington,
Sunday 30th June 2013
Those of us who are regular concertgoers can’t really help ourselves – as we get to know the work of certain musicians whom we’ve heard at various times over the years, we form opinions of them as artists and of their work. And, contrary to the popular axiom, if this work is of a consistently high standard, it’s a case of familiarity giving rise to admiration and respect, and invariably to a desire to hear still more from these same people.
Consider, for instance, pianist Michael Houstoun, who’s had thus far a most distinguished career in this country, and who’s presently engaged upon his second complete public performance cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. Through these and many other performances and recordings, Houstoun has impressed a positive, strong and clearly-etched artistic profile in the minds of the musical public. He would, I’m certain, be widely regarded as this country’s foremost classical pianist at the present time.
Houstoun has consistently and single-mindedly worked towards the highest standards as a musician – to the point where, some years ago, his intensities contributed to a kind of physical melt-down in the form of focal dystonia, a dysfunctional phenomenon which has, over the last quarter-century, afflicted a number of instrumentalists. It says much for the pianist himself that he was able to work towards a recovery, with the help of a number of skilled specialist practitioners.
So, up to that particular crisis-point in his career, and with stellar achievements under his belt such as two complete Beethoven sonata performance cycles – one in public, the other commercially recorded – his reputation as a pianist had been well-established. Now he’s come down to us having gone through what he himself has indicated was a redefining set of experiences associated with his debilitating disorder and gradual return to playing health.
I’ve heard him perform on a number of occasions of late – and for me, each experience has persuaded me to rethink my opinions regarding a pianist whose playing I thought I knew well. This latest concert, the fourth in the new “Beethoven ReCycled” series, pushed out the parameters of the pianist’s art for me in a way that was as exhilarating as it was unexpected. It wasn’t a Wordsworth-like scenario of pleasure and understanding recollected in tranquility – this was a here-and-now experience, one which took its time to grow and flourish during the recital’s course, but with its flowers growing cannons towards the end, to overwhelming effect.
For whatever reason we were located in the Town Hall for this particular recital – and the venue I think overawed the musical content of the opening sonata on the programme, the second of the two “student’ sonatas, Op.49, the one in G Major. Houstoun also chose to play the music in a very simple and unprepossessing way, as if his abilities had been marshalled and concentrated for the purposes of simply realizing the score. I could have imagined more character given to each of the movements – the first chatty, even garrulous in places, volatile and explosive in others, and the second homespun, quirky and angular, by turns – but the pianist might have reckoned that such treatment would have overlaid the music’s simplicity. And Houstoun’s playing graciously made me feel that my own feeble attempts at playing the second movement weren’t perhaps altogether worthless!
The C Major, Op. 2 No. 3, was a different story, the irruptions of energy positively orchestral in their impact, though the melodies were kept on a fairly tight rein, as was the right-hand work – more power than “tumbling warmth”, but none the less impressive for that. The slow movement’s opening, with its stepwise left-hand theme and filigree right-hand figuration here beautifully stilled the busy beat of time, making the great mid-movement outbursts all the more telling, Houstoun bringing out almost Goethe-like vistas of huge spaces and great contrasts.
Tumbling warmth there was a-plenty in the scherzo, with the canonic-like voices having a marvellous time, falling head-over-heels together and landing in satisfyingly tangled heaps at the bottom of each descent – by contrast, the trio was all swirling, vertiginous impulse, making the return of the “Jack and Jill” opening a relief, even if the ending did suggest that the Jack indeed “fell down and broke his crown”. And the finale, deceptively graceful in places (and, I thought, quite Schumannesque in the lyrical second subject), released great surges of energy, with a fierce young virtuoso’s joy in the final presentations.
Before the interval we were treated to one of the composer’s loveliest and most distinctive creations, the two-movement Sonata No.24 in F-sharp Op.78, subtitled “For Thérèse”, the dedicatee, Thérèse von Brunswick, being one of those on the “short list” of candidates for the composer’s enigmatic “Immortal Beloved”. The music here had a lovely ceremonial opening, with Houstoun giving the subsequent unfoldings plenty of time and flexibility to allow a sense of something naturally expressed.
Beethoven gives us certain surprises in the form of sudden remote modulations, and a playful whimsicality as the exposition repeats (lovely to hear!), not to mention the abrupt, enigmatic ending. As for the second movement, its sophisticated humour was given just the right amount of insouciance by the pianist, though we did all enjoy those dynamic “lurches” from major to minor and back again, in those toccata-like passages. If the music is indeed something of a “character-study”, Thérèse must have been both a bit of a thinker, and a lot of fun!
Enjoyable though the first half was, I thought Houstoun’s playing really began to spread its wings after the interval, beginning with the exalted playfulness of the first of the Op.31 Sonatas, No.16 in G Major. Gone was much of the severity and brusque treatment of detail found in the pianist’s recording of the first movement of this work, made for Trust Records in the mid-1990s – here was playing still of great virtuosity but tempered by touches of humour. In between the exciting, energetic runs, the syncopations were given time to register their drollery, so that the listener had a sense both of action and reflection, and their give-and-take in the music.
The second movement’s aria-like aspect here properly had a singer’s amplitude, the textures richly and gorgeously upholstered with both trills and related figurations – I liked the “duetting” middle section, a lovely foil for the more ritualized solo lines, while the “coming together” of the simple and decorative at the end was given by the pianist, by turns, a rich ambience and a wistful, open-ended feeling of space. And the fleet-of-finger finale similarly played with contrasts, Houstoun readily and easefully bringing out the music’s expansive, very Schubertian figurations and textures, but adroitly returning us to a Beethoven-like presto at the end, a drawing-together of the discourse’s threads and patches.
And when this was done, Houstoun proceeded to launch into a performance of the “Appassionata” Sonata, No.23 in F Minor, Op.57 – one of the most famous of Beethoven’s works – with an almost frightening sense of purpose and determination. I remember the pianist in an interview describing how his youthful encounter with a gramophone recording of this music all but overwhelmed his sensibilities – and it seemed that, on this occasion he was able to recapture the essence of that initial impression and convey its full force to those who were present.
No other work by Beethoven expresses a sense of the elemental more insistently, not even the “Grosse Fugue”. The music’s incipient darkness never fully relinquishes its grip, even if there’s some relaxation of tension throughout the “theme-and-variations” form of the middle movement. Houstoun’s powerful playing had all the “grip” this music needed, bringing into play a living and volatile feeling for the piece’s dramatic ebb and flow, great command over a tonal spectrum that gave the piano’s treble plenty of ring and glint and the bass what seemed like oceans of depth, and the enormous reserves of power and stamina needed to do it all justice.
Two things about this performance will abide in my memory long after other details are forgotten – firstly, the sense of the pianist playing that opening phrase, and in doing so somehow enveloping us completely and utterly into the music’s world, as if we were suddenly taken to a vantage-point and could see it all from where we stood at a single glance – by no means removed from the storms but instead placed in the very eye of them! Thus every irruption and every lull swirled around and about our heads, having both an immediacy and an inevitability which stimulated body and mind, emotion and intellect.
When Houstoun observed the finale’s repeat of the development and recapitulation (some pianists don’t, which, for me, always leaves a kind of undressed, bleeding wound in the music at that point!) I had to restrain myself from rising from my seat and thumping the railing in front of me for sheer excitement! I’ve never been able to understand how any pianist with genuinely red blood coursing through his or her arteries could omit this passage, or any analysis could put forward the premise that the repetition is problematical for the movement’s overall structure (significantly, Houstoun also played this particular repeat on his 1995 recording of the work for Trust Records).
The other thing I’m not likely to forget was how Houstoun played the Presto coda of the Sonata’s final movement and what happened straight afterwards. He delivered those opening coda sequences not “as fast as possible” but at a tempo which enabled him to keep the following swirling figurations at a similar pulse, thus avoiding any sense of “slowing down” again, and maintaining the music’s momentum right to the end – such involving, scalp-pricking stuff! And then – the pianist rose from his seat and, amid tumultuous acclaim, seemed almost to scowl at the applause, before turning and practically stalking off the platform, occasionally giving his head a mighty shake, like a lion tossing his mane! He seemed fired up with what he’d just done, and we simply adored him for it! Incredible!
By the time he returned, to renewed applause and a standing ovation, he was ready to smile again! But after a performance such as he gave us of the “Appassionata” he could have made whatever gesture he whatever he wanted, and we would have roared our approval. For myself, I was glad I was there – to see a musician seemingly transported by the emotion of the music he or she is performing so mightily, is certainly something to remember.