Michael Houstoun and Diedre Irons – pianists, and friends: Robert Orr (oboe), Bridget Douglas (flute), Rachel Vernon ( clarinet), Robert Weeks (bassoon), Ed Allen (horn)
Schubert: Moments musicaux, D 780
Mozart: Quintet for piano and winds in E flat, K 452
Poulenc: Flute Sonata
Bizet: Jeux d’enfants for piano duet (“piano four hands”)
Lower Hutt Little Theatre
Sunday 25 January, 2:30 pm
Though the new Steinway piano has been played before, this was a special concert hosted by Chamber Music Hutt Valley to welcome it formally and to attempt to pay off the remaining cost. Thus the players all performed without fees and the Hutt City Council did not charge for the theatre, and at the concert’s end it was announced that the Little Theatre Piano Trust had gained some $10,000, which was expected to cover the balance.
Michael Houstoun himself arranged the concert, and it was a delight to hear him as he introduced the music and his colleagues, with friendliness and a relaxed charm. In addition, I understand, Houstoun had contributed the programme notes, models of pertinence and brevity: a model that practitioners of that craft (not to mention reviewers) might well emulate.
Diedre Irons opened the programme with Schubert’s six Moments musicaux, that explore myriad moods and emotions. While some follow a simple pattern, in more or less uniform character though always with lots of diverting modulations, most follow the classical ABA pattern, offering a ‘trio’ section of quite marked contrast. The outer sections of the first one, Moderato, are emphatic and extravert while the middle is more flowing with a meditative sensibility, all of which Irons captured beautifully.
Houstoun’s note quoted the famous remark that Mozart made to his father that this quintet for piano and winds was the best thing he’d written. That statement might arouse a degree of trepidation in players, but there was no call for it here; though this is not a permanent ensemble that has played together for years, the four wind players have the advantage of wide orchestral experience together, so their playing easily met the music’s expectations; Houstoun was the pianist here. It was the second movement, Larghetto, that most touched the emotions, shifting from the contemplative, to melancholy, to contentment.
Poulenc’s Flute Sonata is one of three sonatas written towards the end of his life, for wind instruments – flute, clarinet and oboe. Each has won a place in the regular repertoire of the three instruments. Without in any way denigrating the other pieces in the programme, the brilliance of this performance by Bridget Douglas and Diedre Irons set it somewhat apart from the rest. Douglas’s playing of the very demanding music, embroidered with double tonguing and fiendish fingering marked it as startlingly accomplished, world class.
Finally, the two pianists at the piano played Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants. It took a little time to trace my previous hearing of this delightful little masterpiece. It was at the 2009 Adam Chamber Music Festival in Nelson and it was played there by these same two pianists. Then I wrote: “This was at the hands of Michael and Diedre at one keyboard and they revealed the uncelebrated genius of Bizet as piano composer. For Bizet’s death at 35 (the same age as Mozart) was a terrible loss not just to opera, but to piano and orchestral music, and probably chamber music too. The music itself is filled with spontaneity and rich invention, but it needs a joyous and boisterous performance such as we heard here to demonstrate just how fecund was Bizet’s melodic imagination and his sense of shape and style.”
Six years later I can’t do better, for their playing here had the same, perhaps if anything more impressive mastery of the idiom, perfect ensemble, endless variety of colour, wit and esprit.
And it might be good to reproduce Houstoun’s note in the programme: “Children’s Games? What is it with French composers, childhood and piano duets? Ravel wrote his Mother Goose Suite, Debussy his Petite Suite, Fauré his Dolly Suite. All of them glorious, but Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants may well be the best of them all – indisputably a masterpiece.” I still think so.
So the splendid new piano was brilliantly invested in the presence of a full house, and the promise of a series of five fine concerts, starting and ending with piano recitals, and in between, a string quartet, Affetto – an early music ensemble, and a piano and winds quartet.
And I should add, as free advertising, that the lobby of the Little Theatre has finally been brought up to scratch with the expected coffee and bar facilities.