Houstoun’s stupendous feat in first of the final trilogy of Beethoven sonata recitals

Chamber Music New Zealand  Beethoven reCYCLE 2013: Programme Five

Sonata no.2 in A, Op.2 no.2
Sonata no.8 in C minor, Op.13 ‘Pathétique’
Sonata no.18 in E flat, Op.31 no.3 “La Chasse’
Sonata no.30 in E, Op.109

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 8 November 2013, 7.30pm

How does one express in words the riches of hearing Beethoven’s incomparable piano sonatas superbly played?

The only real drawback to the performance was the fact of it having to be held in the Michael Fowler Centre due to the earthquake strengthening of the Town Hall, in which building is also located the Ilott
Theatre, where the first (April) concerts in this series were held.

Sensibly, much of the auditorium was roped off, so that the audience was concentrated in the central and left side sections of the downstairs seating.  In his introductory remarks, Euan Murdoch (Chief Executive, Chamber Music New Zealand) assured us that the audience of approximately 500 would fill the Wigmore Hall in London, venue for so many recitals and chamber music concerts.

However, there was some effect of such a cavernous space on the sound the audience received, despite a lower platform below the main stage being used, as it was for the Goldner Quartet in September, that  brought pianist and audience somewhat closer together.

Though the early sonata that opened the concert (1794-95) has the style and format of a classical sonata, the content is such that it could not have been written by Haydn (its dedicatee) or Mozart.  As
Charlotte Wilson said in her introductory talk, Beethoven’s distinctive contrasts between soft and loud, staccato and legato, were in full evidence, with moments of great delicacy contrasting with bravura passages.

The chorale-like opening of the second movement is satisfying and solemn, and develops through a delightful transition before the firm steps of the opening return.  Further variation in grimmer mode
follows, then a gentler, almost dance-like version.

The third movement is a joy, and Houstoun’s lightness of touch made the most of every phrase, while in the extended rondo final movement Houstoun’s facility allowed Beethoven’s beauties to reveal themselves.

The well-known Pathétique sonata would have been demanding and even puzzling at its first hearing, though written only four years after the sonata we heard first.  Here we had no mechanical performance; there were rubati and slight variations of tempi in the first movement, which Beethoven would surely have approved.  After the opening (grave), the allegro molto was indeed fast, with just an occasional loss of clarity.  The vast majority of its magical characteristics were all there.

As is usual with Michael Houstoun’s playing, one was unaware of the sustaining pedal, so judiciously is it used.  The gorgeous slow movement displayed pianism at its finest.  Houstoun never succumbed to a romantic rendition, yet instilled the music with plenty of feeling.

The final movement, another rondo, was again pretty fast just a shade too much so for me.  I found that at this tempo the odd note clattered rather than sounded fully in the way that most of its fellows did.  But Beethoven’s effects were there for all to hear.

‘La Chasse’ (1802) is one of my favourite sonatas, especially the minuet, for which years ago in a youthful romantic phase I wrote words.  As with the first sonata, this being after the interval, it took a
little time to become accustomed to the sound in the Michael Fowler Centre acoustic, but again the strangeness soon wore off.

This was a cheerful chase.  Surely the prey would not want to be caught, so that it could continue to listen to this wonderful music!   The second movement’s running opening has the music always going somewhere, and the little strophes that interrupt don’t stop the genial progress for long.

The minuet and trio were as enchanting as ever  more so than in the hands of some pianists.  I don’t know when I last heard this sonata in a live concert; I found it a joyful and fulfilling experience. The skill in the modulations of the last movement were breathtaking.

Finally to late Beethoven  1820, to be precise. The opening probably suffered the most from the acoustic, but again, one’s ears adapted, and the ripple of calm yet lyrical notes soon found the right receptors.  Soon the driving, burning talent of Beethoven breaks through the calm, only to alternate with it in episodes.

The prestissimo second movement is short and also episodic.  Then comes the sublime slow opening of the final movement.  Its nostalgic and contemplative quality summons up thoughts of what might have been in Beethoven’s mind at this stage of his life.  This is one of the many treasures that the composer has given us; such expressive beauty!

The variations are a considerable tour de force, but several are of a slower pace, rather than increasing the
prestidigitation.  The return of the theme at the end made for an exquisite close to an evening of music that transported one; magical and peaceful.

To have all 32 sonatas under the fingers and in the brain, as Houstoun has, is a stupendous feat, and  much appreciated by the attentive audience.  The experience of hearing these sonatas in such
capable hands was elevating and joyous.


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