Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven on Rattle

BEETHOVEN – The Piano Sonatas
Michael Houstoun (piano)
Rattle RAT DO48 2014

Recording published by Rattle, a division of Victoria University Press 2014
(supported by Sir James Wallace and The Wallace Arts Trust)

(reviewed December 2014)

With his recently-released set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas recorded for Rattle Records, Michael Houstoun joins a select number of pianists who have recorded the cycle more than once. And though he’s in pretty stellar company, here, alongside luminaries such as Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Backhaus, Daniel Barenboim and Friedrich Gulda, with this latest issue Houstoun can, in my opinion, hold his head up proudly in their company.

Had the pianist’s previous cycle for Trust Records, dating from the mid-1990s, been better and more consistently recorded, we would have had two “classic” performances of the works to savour and enjoy, each wholly characteristic of Houstoun’s playing at the time of recording. Alas, that earlier set remains compromised in places by variable sound, the promise of the first instalment of the Middle Period” sonatas thwarted by later production efforts which to my ears don’t do the pianism throughout the rest of the cycle proper justice.

Happily, the latest set, recorded in the New Zealand School of Music’s Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington by Steve Garden, in tandem with producer Kenneth Young and piano-tuner Michael Ashby, has caught a consistently true and (one or two reservations notwithstanding) eminently listenable sound-picture. It’s one that I can readily equate with what I heard of Houstoun’s playing in no less than three different venues during his 2013 concert performances of the cycle. I would still go back occasionally to that very first “Middle Period” Trust set of CDs to remind myself of how good Houstoun’s Beethoven was at that time, but it’s to the new set I would now almost unreservedly turn for a more far-reaching (and, of course more current) view of these works.

The presence and clarity of the sound is just one of the strengths of the new enterprise, though I would recommend that listeners to the set play the recordings at as high a volume setting as they dare, without offending neighbours, unsympathetic family members or musically recalcitrant pets. Before plunging into this “Beethovenian ocean” on my own, I had taken the set to a friend’s place to “sample” one of the discs, and the “Tempest” Sonata was chosen as a “test” piece – it didn’t impress as much as I had hoped, the sound seeming to lack both brightness and warmth as well as sufficient detail. But at home, and then at another friend’s house I listened at a higher volume – and the sound-picture was practically transformed! – now, the notes had plenty of “ring” and Houstoun’s detailing of the passage-work was opened up through being brought closer, and revealed as replete with interest.

A particular feature of the new set which I’ve really enjoyed is the arrangement of the sonatas upon each of the fourteen discs. Houstoun tells us in the accompanying booklet notes that back in the 1990s he initially resisted the idea of interfering with the published order of the works – so, by way of preparing them for his first public performance of the cycle he would play them through repeatedly “in order”. He gradually came to feel that in concert something different was needed, and so he devised seven programs, all of which featured sonatas from the composer’s different compositional periods. This proved so successful, that when it came time to repeat the cycle in 2013 the pianist made no changes to his “recital order”.

That same order is replicated on these new CDs, each of the seven recital programmes being allocated two discs. It makes for uncommonly satisfying listening, whether one decides to play any single CD or replicate any of the original recital programs. Unlike the “one-period-at-a-time” grouping of the sonatas in the previous Trust recordings, this newer project justly reflects the “holistic” way with which Houstoun conceived the undertaking right from the outset. To be fair, that first Trust set of the “Middle Period” sonatas was at the time a ground-breaking flagship venture, by no means assured of continuance after the first issue – so it was deemed necessary for each step to have a more “stand-alone” aspect.

How things have changed! – to the point where a new recording by Houstoun featuring all thirty-two of the sonatas was deemed not only possible but necessary! And how wonderful to have such a closely-associated sound-reminiscence of those actual recital programmes performed up and down the land during 2013!  So, when one turns to Programme One, on the set’s first two discs, one can begin that amazing journey all over again, with the pianist as a skilled and insightful guide. The thoughtfulness of Houstoun’s approach can be gleaned by his choice of the D Major Sonata Op.10 No.3 as the opening work, because, as he puts it “of its wonderful Largo”, what he goes on to call “Beethoven’s first truly great slow movement”.

Which brings me to mention of another of the new set’s qualities – its reproduction of the pianist’s own commentaries from the notes accompanying the live recitals, illuminating and enhancing our appreciation of what we hear at almost every turn. This was also a feature of the Trust issues, though Houstoun has rewritten these in accord with his “latest thoughts” – invariably the message is the same but worded differently, often more simply, as with the “refreshed” note about the “Waldstein” Sonata. (I do regret the omission of a footnote to the earlier set’s remarks about the E-flat Op.81a Sonata, usually subtitled “Les Adieux”, one which nicely made the point that Beethoven wanted his own description “Das Lebewohl” used in the published edition – in the new set, the traditional French subtitle stands at the head of the note once more, as if to say “Oh, well….”).

But the stylish, sturdily-bound booklet has much more – there’s a detailed, fluently-written biography of Houstoun penned by Charlotte Wilson, a true celebration of the pianist’s life and career, her account properly inclusive of all the people whose influence made a difference to the pianist’s life-course, as well as being revealingly candid in places (for example, I found the portrait of Houstoun’s relationship with his father somewhat chilling). Obviously written for local consumption (it has an engagingly first-name-parochial style), the essay provides an exhilarating, but nicely-balanced account of a remarkable career, one which, by dint of both success and setback through injury, has had its ups and downs, and emerged all the stronger.

Booklet and discs are beautifully and securely encased, with everything conveniently accessible, as per Rattle’s usual attractive standards of presentation – there’s a time-line of the pianist’s career for quick reference, a discography, and numerous photographs, both from different stages of Houstoun’s life and from his two Beethoven cycle recital series (the later ones in colour). Decorating both booklet and discs is detail from a painting by Christchurch-based artist Philip Trusttum, helping to give the issue a strongly-flavoured, uncompromisingly abstracted home-grown feel, which suits the enterprise perfectly.

As for this review, it’s obvious that to do full and detailed justice to Houstoun’s playing of the whole cycle would require a lengthy treatise that might take longer to read than it would the pianist to play through the music! But I thought that, in the midst of the inevitable generalities an examination of one of these “programmes” would give the reader something of a sense of its specific flavour, and an idea of the range and scope of the whole. With these objectives in mind I decided I would examine the first of them, and sneak in veiled references to other individual sonatas along the way of things, as opportunities  “crop up” to do so.

So, Programme One! – it begins with a hiss and a roar, as the opening declamation of Op.10 No.3 exuberantly announces its presence as would a character in an opera buffa. The music is a kind of comedy overture, replete with spontaneous energies, extravagant gestures, sly asides, quizzical looks and enigmatic smiles – and, while Houstoun isn’t a nudge-wink Shura Cherkassky kind of performer, his playing suggests something of this tumbling warmth and po-faced humour, with plenty of dynamic variation and flexibility of phrasing.  As one might expect he gives the “wonderful Largo” full measure, exchanging the comic mask for a deeply tragic one, and making the most of sequences like the wonderful ascending triplet passage which then tightens the screws on the tensions towards the conclusion, before breaking off and returning to the opening “stasis of sorrow” that frames the movement. The strength of his playing leaves a relatively dry-eyed impression at the movement’s end, but that’s in keeping with making coherent what’s still to come, the “tragedy to the mind and a comedy to the intellect” idea supported by the playfulness of both Menuetto and Finale. What marvellous music it is!

Then comes the first of the two “Fantasy-Sonatas” of Op.27 (the other one being the “Moonlight”, of course), here played and phrased a shade coolly at the outset, tempering its early romanticism, perhaps in deference to its more famous companion – though Houstoun revealingly muses in his notes that, for him, “Beethoven hasn’t quite made up his mind what to do” – and the touch of abruptness at the beginning certainly supports that view. Later in the Sonata Houstoun’s playing is less equivocal, for instance, giving full measure to the “held” chord that connects the scherzo with the heavenly-voiced third-movement adagio. In places like this one admires the connectiveness of the artist’s thinking about and playing of the music.

The bright, chirpy opening of the E Major Op.14 No.1 Sonata does emphasize the recording’s touch of dryness, though better this than too “swimmy” an acoustic – I like the slightly questioning air Houstoun brings to the first movement’s repeated ascending chromatic phrase, one whose delivery I find here more quizzical than the pianist’s description of “unsettling”, but certainly in consistent accord with what happens throughout. There’s a flexibility of response that to me suggests greater ease and circumspection than was the case with the more tightly-wound Trust performance. Something of the severity of Beethoven’s previous sonata, the “Pathetique”, does come across in Houstoun’s way with the Allegretto middle movement, a sense of sombre ritual, nicely “warmed” by the pianist during the major-key trio. But what a tour-de-force is his playing of the triplet-dominated finale, capturing the music’s “rolling-down-the-hill” exuberance and moments of quirky harmonic exploration in one fell swoop – a most exhilarating first-half closer!

An interval of sorts comes with a change of CD for the recital’s second half, opening with the Op.26 A-flat Sonata – a work which Houstoun describes as a “new beginning” for the composer’s use of sonata-form, one containing both a theme-and-variations movement, and a funeral march! The opening is the theme, resplendent and rich in its A-flat finery, to which Houstoun brings a fine nobility, before gently teasing out the variations, none of which are of the showy, flashy variety – though perhaps the last of them, with its more filigree aspect, sounds a tad more self-conscious than the rest. (Beethoven ushers it demurely out of sight at the end via a brief coda!)

Houstoun has always done well with this particular sonata, achieving miracles of finely-gradated touch in the scherzo, while relishing the music’s syncopated accents. But when it comes to the Funeral March movement, I have to say I prefer the pianist’s more expansive tempo on the earlier Trust recording. Compared with the newer, sterner reading, the former sounds more inwardly-felt, with the playing supported by a warmer and slightly more giving acoustic. This is especially noticeable in the drum-roll sequences, which, on the new Rattle recording convey to me a more dispassionate, almost abstracted impression – perhaps Houstoun was concerned that anything more theatrical and dramatic in manner might, as he put it in his notes, “sound meretricious”. Fortunately, the finale restores the music/listener relationship to a more even keel once again, Houstoun nicely realizing for us the babble of the semiquaver voices as they collect, intensify, dissipate, and then finally disappear, as abruptly as they first appeared.

Already these two discs have taken us on quite a musical journey, so to have the “Waldstein” Sonata at the recital’s end is akin to experiencing a kind of homecoming – I remember the live concerts consistently supporting that sense of completion in different ways, depending upon the works involved in the various traversals. With sonatas such as Programme Two’s Op.101 in A (No.28), Programme Five’s Op 109 in E (No.30) and Programme Six’s Op.110 in A-flat (No.31), the sense of “return” at their conclusion I found very strong and satisfying, in complete contrast to the programs that left one in wondrously transfigured worlds from which one gradually found one’s own way back afterwards! – such were Programme Three’s “Hammerklavier”, Programme Four’s “Appassionata” and (despite an overall sense of grand summation) the final programme’s stellar Op.111 – all far-reaching conclusions!

So it is, here – Houstoun’s way with the “Waldstein”, instantly engaging, nevertheless has a grand cumulative effect, proceeding from the brightly-alert opening pulsations and their contrasting lyrical counterweights to a rigorous engagement between the two in a working-out section, standpoints that are steadfastly restated at the recapitulation of the opening, but quite gloriously “worked out” by the time the movement’s concluding musings and final flourish come upon us. The deep-throated “song of the earth” that follows is beautifully voiced, the spaces as eloquently shaped as the notes, our progress through the void led instinctively to that matchless moment of impulse when the light from a single note points the way forward.

The way Houstoun takes us through all of this is an art that conceals art, one which repays the closest attention in kind. Though one feels the inevitability of the pianist’s conception throughout, there’s still an “in situ” chemistry of engagement that transfixes every moment – it’s a quality that I’ve come to associate with Houstoun, that he can persuade you of the rightness of his interpretation at the time of listening, even when, in retrospect, you might find you prefer what you’ve heard others do. Here in the Waldstein, there’s no doubt that a kind of greatness is at work, as each of the work’s episodes is characterized so strongly and sharply – one doesn’t think of isolating any particular sequence, but instead, of simply “going with the flow” and reflecting on life’s richness and diversity when the music finally leaves off.

Others that stand out for me among these recorded performances are those programme-concluding works I’ve already mentioned – and, of course, that’s the way any kind of assemblage works best, like the Biblical wine for the guests at the marriage-feast at Cana, where the “best” was also kept to last!  Each of those works speak for themselves, in a sense, though it would be true to say that they show Houstoun’s playing at his most inspired, the music’s greatness matched by the pianist’s response accordingly. It would be wrong of me to make much of one performance at the expense of others, but I thought Houstoun’s playing of the “Appassionata”, as in the recital (Programme Four), some of the most remarkably abandoned pianism I’ve ever heard from him (the playing literally brought the Wellington Town Hall audience to its feet!).

At the spectrum’s other end, of course, is the final sonata’s concluding Arietta movement – surely one of the most remarkable, inter-galactic acts of creation ever devised by a human being – while my allegiance to the young Daniel Barenboim’s first EMI recording of this work as a “desert-island choice” remains unshaken, Houstoun’s performance is a “thinking-man’s alternative” to the likes of the more visceral, spontaneous-sounding Barenboim. And, in any case, from the beginnings of those trilled murmurings after the near-manic “boogie-woogie” variation has subsided, Houstoun “has me in thrall” right to the piece’s end, as overwhelmingly as any. Yes, I know it’s supposedly all in the music, and the performer is merely the conduit through which it passes – but that’s a superficial observation. It DOES make a difference who’s sitting at the piano – and with Michael Houstoun there, that difference has its own precious distinction.

By any standards this new set is a wondrous achievement from all concerned.




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