Beethoven’s and Michael Houstoun’s “Les Adieux” – for now…….

Chamber Music New Zealand presents:
Michael Houstoun – Beethoven reCYCLE 2013
Programme Seven “Les Adieux”

BEETHOVEN – Sonata in F minor, Op 2 No 1 / Sonata in G, Op 79
Sonata in E flat, Op 81a ‘Les Adieux’
Sonata in E minor, Op 90   / Sonata in C minor, Op 111

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre,Wellington

Monday 11th November 2013

This was the final concert in Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven reCYCLE 2013 project, which has encompassed the composer’s entire output of 32 piano sonatas, presented in forty concerts, spread across ten centres. The atmosphere of eager anticipation in the Fowler Centre was almost palpable from an audience of some 600 listeners who were clearly devotees not only of Beethoven, but of the artist too.

The concert opened with the first published piano sonata and ended with the final one, written nearly 30 years later. Despite being an early opus, the F minor work is nevertheless full of the drama, beauty, and individualism that we associate with Beethoven’s mature output, and he was indeed already a highly successful pianist and composer in Vienna when he wrote it. Michael Houstoun’s reading was fresh and vigorous, and immediately engaged the audience for the journey through this ambitious programme.

The G major work is a captivating gem, its three brief movements more in the scale of a sonatina than sonata. Houstoun fashioned a wonderful balance between the poetic central Andante and its encompassing outer movements, in an interpretation that offered a lightness and transparency to the ear.

The E flat sonata “Les Adieux” was dedicated to a friend and pupil of Beethoven’s, the Archduke Rudolph. When this patron left Vienna in 1809 to avoid the French advance and bombardment, Beethoven wrote this very personal work with movements entitled The Farewell, The Absence, and The Return. No other Beethoven sonata has an explicit programme like this, and the work has a sense of acute personal involvement, intimately and richly expressed. Houstoun embraced this with moving artistry, particularly in the central Andante expressivo.

The E minor sonata, with only two movements, is reputedly a love story for Count Moritz Lichnowsky, to whom it is dedicated. He had successfully wooed an opera singer, and wedding bells were in the offing, but the first movement seems to capture the moods of  early courtship – the passion, hopes, doubts, even despair, of initial discovery and tentative advancement…….. Conversely, the second movement conveys a sense of profound relief, and the serenity of a rich, mutual understanding finally established.  Houstoun explored all these aspects with a sensitivity that conveyed a particularly special and personal affinity with this work.

The C minor sonata Opus 111 sits within the works usually labelled “late Beethoven”, yet to me it is much more immediately engaging and accessible than, say, some of the late string quartets. The first of its two movements opens with a Maestoso section that then moves into Allegro con brio ed appassionato. The following Arietta is marked Adagio molto semplice e cantabile, and it finally fades away with a beautifully crafted coda resolution. Houstoun’s artistry captured every mood, and conveyed throughout a telling sense of profound fulfilment– as though aligning a deep satisfaction derived from the mammoth reCYCLE undertaking with similar sentiments encapsulated as Beethoven penned his final sonata work.

It seems churlish to harbour even a single reservation about this wonderful concert, but there were a few things I would have liked to hear done differently. Throughout these sonatas there are the characteristic extended periods of high speed, sometimes frenetic, finger passagework, often at a forte dynamic, which Houstoun presents in unbroken sweeps of uniform sound. My preference is for a much more rigorous rhythmic articulation of individual figures and motifs within these passages – which can enable the listener to hang onto the phrasing structure while never losing sight of the overall architecture which always underpins them. Also, these works offer an incredible dynamic range, and I would have appreciated more exploration of the pianissimo region, which the Steinway used here has well within its capacity.

But perhaps the single element I most missed was silence – encapsulated in Debussy’s telling comment “Music is the silence between the notes.” After each statement of a new phrase or subject I craved that infinitesimal spacing that enhances absorption by the senses. And even more so between movements, where a moment’s breath would enable the listener to comprehend fully the artistry of Houstoun’s playing just past, before embarking with him on his journey forward.

Houstoun’s extraordinary achievement and musicianship in presenting the entire reCYCLE project was acknowledged with huge appreciation by a unanimous standing ovation at the end of the concert, where he stood showered in clouds of glittering ticker tape spewed from two confetti cannons overhead, and was presented with a gigantic rich red bouquet. It was a brilliant and memorable moment in Wellington’s music making scene, and an inspired way to celebrate an extraordinary partnership between the artist, the supporters, and Chamber Music New Zealand.

Bravo all!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *