Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas: Concert No 6
No 4 in E flat, Op 7
No 14 in C sharp minor, Op 27, No 2 ‘Moonlight’
No 15 in D, Op 28 ‘Pastoral’
No 31 in A flat, Op 110
Michael Fowler Centre
Sunday 10 November, 5pm
Let me go back three decades.
This series celebrates Michael Houstoun’s 60th birthday, and the 20th anniversary of his earlier cycle, in 1993.
It is also the 30th anniversary of a momentous step for music in Wellington. In 1983, as Charlotte Wilson quotes from the Introduction to the 1993 programme, the Wellington Chamber Music Society, inspired by its chairman Russell Armitage (and indeed the whole committee), took a bold step. With some opposition from the national federation of chamber music societies, the predecessor of Chamber Music New Zealand, the society inaugurated a series of Sunday afternoon concerts; in the first three years they were held in the Victoria University Memorial Theatre, attracting good crowds, enticed in part by free mulled wine in the interval.
The original impulse was to enable us to hear chamber music that a) demanded less familiar groups, such as sextets or nonets, and music for woodwind and brass instruments, and b) would give performance opportunities to local players – up-and-coming players – who were largely neglected by the then Music Federation of New Zealand.
In that first four-concert series, in June/July 1983, the Wellington society engaged Michael Houstoun for a Beethoven recital; he played the Op 10 no 3, along with the Pathétique and the Appassionata. (The success of that series inspired a further short series in October; and an important new music series had been launched!) In 1984 Houstoun played Op 2 No 3, Op 78 and the Waldstein, and so on annually thereafter. In 1986, the year of the first International Festival of the Arts, the concerts moved from the university to the Concert Chamber – the original 600-seat chamber upstairs in the Town Hall.
The annual Beethoven recital from Michael Houstoun was a regular high point, and the goal was set to play all the sonatas. That goal was reached by the early 1990s.
Armitage then proposed a re-packaging of the entire sonata canon in a dedicated festival over the space of three weeks. It would take place in the Ilott Concert Chamber in the newly strengthened and rebuilt Town Hall. They ran from 3 to 24 November 1993, on Saturday and Wednesday evenings. I was at all the concerts and reviewed five of them for The Evening Post; Gillian Bibby reviewed concerts four and five. For me the chance to hear Houstoun in this series was one of the most remarkable privileges in my reviewing career.
Houstoun took his series over the following months to Auckland, Napier, Christchurch and Dunedin.
But it was not the first complete Beethoven cycle in New Zealand. I had clipped a letter from The Listener of 19 March 1994 that recalled a series in Dunedin in 1968 by Hungarian pianist Istvan Nadas when he was artist-in-residence at Otago University.
However, to the matter in hand.
This time, it was Chamber Music New Zealand itself that took up the baton, with elegant and generous acknowledgement from Euan Murdoch of the many sponsors and other individuals as well as the staff of CMNZ who created these repeat performances, that attracted here an audience of more than 600.
Each recital was carefully constructed to balance early and late, famous and unfamiliar, to offer contrasted moods and, for those with perfect pitch, satisfying key relationships. The latter were hardly evident in a programme that had Op 7 in E flat next to the Moonlight in C sharp minor, and the Pastoral in D before Op 110 in A flat.
The E flat sonata is less familiar, without quite the emotional warmth or the electrifying drama of the famous ones.
I was slightly uncertain about the sound I was hearing on Sunday. Seated well to the left, the piano’s sound in the first sonata seemed a little unfocused, which I put down to the sometimes wayward acoustic in certain parts of the MFC, but could have been imperfections in the piano voicing. Nevertheless, Houstoun’s impetuosity and rhythmic energy in the Allegro molto rapidly overwhelmed technical matters, and the fine subtlety of dynamics, the hint of rallentando towards the middle section and the ever-changing patterns of the music focused attention on the music’s essential grandeur and inventiveness.
In any case, moving to a central position after the interval I found the sound perfectly balanced and coherent.
No mood remains constant through any movement, portentousness and wit in the Largo, gaiety and moments of repose as the major-minor key switch enlivened the scherzo-like Allegro. Finally, the last movement breaks the predominant triplet rhythms of the first three movements, though the speed, now in duple time, seemed otherwise to change only slightly.
The Moonlight stands in dramatic contrast to the Op 7 as its moods, really in all three movements, remain constant, but it didn’t mean that the all-too-familiar first movement was monotonous; all manner of minuscule tempo changes, rubato, the teasing obscurity of rhythms in the vacillating triplets. The insouciance that Houstoun brought to the Allegretto was free and heart-easing and it made the reckless speed of the flawless last movement all the more astonishing.
The Pastoral sonata is far from ‘pastoral’ in the usual sense; none of the names bestowed on the sonatas had Beethoven’s sanction and it’s surprising that such an inappropriate name as this has continued to be used. In fact, not all editions use it: my Augener album does not. Written just after the Moonlight, it takes an entirely different path that for me creates a very strong and interesting musical character; Houstoun’s playing elevated its stature well above the merely picturesque, to a work that is purposeful, with impressive formal strengths as well the most engaging thematic inventions. The Andante created a cloistered feeling, 2/4, squarish in shape after the 3/4 rhythm of the Allegro, and hinting at some sort of mechanical movement. If you still seek something of the outdoors, it might be found in the last movement which opens in a fanciful mood but is laced with bravura passages of sweeping scales and arpeggios. Houstoun’s playing would have surprised any doubters of this sonata’s originality and enchantment, and it reinforced my own admiration and delight.
All three of the last sonatas have a place in music that has to be likened to religious revelation and for an increasingly secular society, it is music of this kind, as well as the most transcendental poetry, drama and prose fiction and visual arts that have come to be seen as a fully satisfying substitute for religion.
Though all three are uniquely different one from another, all are masterpieces.
The first movement of the Op 110 opens with a melody that is of quintessential beauty in the quite untroubled key of A flat major, calling up a unique spiritual state, reinforced by its repetition and elaboration that is comparable to the chanting of religious ritual. The ethereal atmosphere emerged from the stillness of Houstoun’s performance, a stillness mirrored by the sense of peace and repose that his demeanour at the keyboard expressed, utterly undemonstrative, without gestures, merely the medium for the music itself.
And though the second movement, Allegro molto, is a startling change, with just a near modulation into D flat in the middle, it was in perfect accord with the nature of what went before. Then there was the remarkable recitative that leads to the lamenting Arioso which the programme notes explain, quoting Antony Hopkins, as suggesting that Beethoven here expresses frustration at the inadequacies of his musical resources: a theory that seems to me to belittle not just this sonata, but Beethoven in toto.
I think it’s allowed to express the composer’s profound grief at the entire human condition, at the inadequacy of the human spirit in dealing with the cruelties and evils of the world as well as the despair he faced through deafness and the ailments that would soon kill him. Yet that’s not Beethoven’s conclusion. The sonata ends with an extraordinary fugue that breaks off to return to the Arioso before accelerating to a final peroration, which Houstoun created in a spirit of almost overwhelming exultancy.
An exultancy that found voice in another clamorous, standing ovation. Thank you Michael Houstoun and Chamber Music New Zealand.