Michael Houstoun’s tribute to Judith Clark – a feast of Bach

Te Kōkī New Zealand School of Music
Institute of Registered Music Teachers in New Zealand (IRMT)

Judith Clark Memorial Piano Series

Opening Concert: Michael Houstoun
JS BACH – The Well-Tempered Klavier Bk.2 BWV 870-93

Adam Concert Room, NZSM Campus, Victoria University

Sunday, 21st August, 2016

A brief preamble: Judith Clark (1931-2014) was a much-respected piano pedagogue and former Head of Piano Studies at Victoria University’s School of Music in Wellington. Her years of prominence in this latter role were before my time in the capital, but I certainly remember her in retirement as an abiding presence at many a concert and recital, having the air of a “grand dame” whose attendance at whatever performance might have seemed to those who knew her to give each occasion a kind of telepathic approbation. I never got to know her or talk with her to any great extent, and it was obviously my loss – since her death I’ve come to realise the extent of her influence and importance as a teacher, mentor and administrator in the capital’s musical life. So, the instigation of this series, featuring recitals given by no less than four of the country’s leading pianists, is no mean tribute to a significant, and already almost legendary figure.

Michael Houstoun’s choice of music to begin the series certainly invested the occasion with a distinction of its own – having been captivated throughout his musical life by a number of Preludes and Fugues from Book Two of JS Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, he resolved to master those others that he didn’t know and had never played, and perform the entire set of twenty-four! In the concert’s programme notes Houstoun recounted for us how he had played some of the composer’s Goldberg Variations for Judith Clark on the last occasion that he saw her, remarking that “she loved this music”. So his choice of the music was by way of remembering and commemorating her fondness for Bach, and at the same time realising his wish to play the whole of the WTC’s Second Book.

Interesting that Bach himself never called Part Two of the work “The Well-Tempered Clavier”, but instead “New Preludes and Fugues”. Though the collection is reckoned by commentators as less satisfying an entity than is Part One, the “infinite variety” of its different characters, preludes and fugues alike, makes for as compelling a listening experience as the more “organic” earlier Book. I must say that Houstoun surprised and even delighted me no end with his brief but thoughtful annotations accompanying each prelude and fugue, printed in the programme accompanying the recital. It’s not unlike what, firstly Hans Von Bulow, and then Alfred Cortot, did by way of “prefacing” each of the 24 Preludes of Chopin, though the pianist himself cites the example of Debussy providing titles for his Piano Preludes. I’m almost certain a younger Michael Houstoun wouldn’t for a moment have considered such an undertaking – but his remarks concerning the music in an interview I heard just prior to the concert indicated in no uncertain terms his awareness of, and willingness to share his thoughts regarding the “character” of each of the individual pieces.

So, in the programme, alongside each of the preludes and fugues alike, we were given a brief (often single-word) impression of what the music suggested to the pianist. Houstoun himself alluded to the “slippery ground” that such an exercise might place beneath any interpreter’s or listener’s feet, particularly those of either a suggestible or a literal-minded bent, due to Bach’s leaving so much of the “interpretation” to the individual performer (practically no dynamic or tempo markings, for instance). What it all confirmed for me was the essential uniqueness of individual responses to art, and the validity of those responses both across the board and down the ages. Bach was obviously happy for posterity to make what it might of his music, within the cosmic embrace, of course, of his unquenchable faith in God. This remarkably unselfconscious quality is one that’s proven to be one of the music’s greatest and most enduring strengths.

Faced with Houstoun’s playing of twenty-four Preludes and Fugues, I thought I’d forego a detailed, piece-by-piece analysis of the pianist’s performance, one which would sorely try the patience of even the most avid reader of “Middle C”. Instead, I’d touch on places in the concert which would indicate the general range and scope of Houstoun’s astounding playing throughout    a kind of “as the twig is bent, so the tree’s inclined” approach. I must admit that, perhaps somewhat churlishly, I didn’t look at the pianist’s piece-by-piece annotations until he’d finished playing each one or a group of them – I wanted to form my own impressions of what he was enabling the music to do at the time of its sounding, and then “compare notes” so to speak.

Houstoun arranged the sequence of the pieces in four “blocks” – what he called “a feast in four bites” – placing two five minute breaks at the halfway stage of each of the concert’s halves (are you still with me?), making for what could be called in another context “comfort stops”! For me it gave what seemed like a mighty processional of pieces and associated fugues at once more overall shape and some space in which various individual delights of the cavalcade could be better savoured. Were I to choose one prelude/fugue sequence from each of these segments of the concert, the following are the ones I would single out for special comment.

The Sixth Prelude and Fugue in D Minor comes in the wake of the previous D Major pair, whose wonderful “processional fanfare” aspect at the start was a feeling regarding the music that I obviously shared with the pianist, and whose fugue seemed to me to reflect a  kind of reflection in tranquillity upon the previous outward display, a more intimate evocation of shared well-being. By contrast, the D minor pairing expressed a grimmer, more single-minded purpose, the ”real business” concerned with goals and outcomes rather than processes and posturings. Houstoun’s fleet-of-finger playing most excitingly drove the argument forward in a torrent of energy, brooking no interference. How whimsical, then, was the fugue, with its sly, deconstructionist gestures, the chromatic descents following each of the upward-thrusting figurations as deftly undoing the constructs as each were proposed – extraordinarily satisfying!

The Ninth of the set, in E major, featured a Prelude whose contourings seemed as if shaped by unearthly hands, its serenities of movement and phrasing beautifully “voiced” by Houstoun, as if in communion with other-worldly forces – a kind of “music of the spheres”, realising processes that had their own age-old logic and purpose. Its Fugue was one which grew from patiently unfolding steps ascending and expanding with a kind of inevitability and strength which, here and elsewhere, makes one marvel at the music’s (and its composer’s) visionary capacities, which the pianist brought to us with all the grandeur he could muster! Interesting, then, to read his “Angelic benediction” description of the Prelude, along with the “Holy, holy, holy” appellation for the Fugue.

Moving to the second half, I was particularly taken with the urgently-paced, attention-grabbing G-sharp Minor Prelude, its figurations having something of a relentless aspect, redeemed by a frequently-repeated three-note motif. The outlines are sufficiently varied and exploratory for the music to take on a kind of narrative quality, which Houstoun shaped and coloured as would a good story-teller, keeping our interest simmering throughout. My ear took a few measures to get the rhythmic “gait” of the fugue (three, as opposed to four, at the start!), but the music made for a fascinating journey into, through and out of different states of feeling and being, to hypnotic effect, the pianist’s concentration and far-seeing purpose never seeming to flag, and, in fact, gathering weight and strength as it proceeded, leaving nothing in its wake.

Though not the  final one in the set, I made an asterisk beside my notes for the A minor Prelude and Fugue at the time,  thinking I would want to dwell upon it further afterwards. It seemed to me to exemplify what Bach could do with the simplest building materials, in this case in the Prelude with simple alternating chromatic and “normal” scale passages, interspersed with simple intervals that move disconcertingly in and out of shadows, creating from these simple elements what sounds like a complex web of interactions (Houstoun’s annotation for this movement reads, somewhat divertingly, “Maybe….maybe not”. The Prelude’s second half seems to lift the music more into the light, which seems not only to further illuminate but also to intensify its complex workings.

As for the fugue, its big-boned gestures and massive trajectories  moved easily and majestically alongside more urgent and quicksilver gesturings as if demonstrating a kind of all-pervading pulse governing all manner of movements and actions, cerebral and emotional, structural and decorative,  cosmic and individual. The “wow!” that appeared in my notes at the end of Houstoun’s playing of the piece seemed to appear of its own volition – exactly how it got there I couldn’t even begin to imagine, let alone understand. Some things are best left to metaphysics – and it seemed fitting to leave undisturbed such a spontaneously-wrought tribute to an integral part of an occasion which will be long-remembered by those who  attended.

One of Judith Clark’s successors at the  School of Music,  Diedre Irons, will next offer a programme featuring the music of Haydn, Debussy and Liszt, to be performed at the Adam Concert Room on Sunday 18th September. The remaining two concerts will be given on Sundays in 2017, on March 26th by Richard Mapp, and on May 7th by Jian Liu, currently Head of Piano at Victoria. It’s a cause for oceans of gratitude to be given by all piano-fanciers to the organisers of the concerts, to the artists themselves, and, of course to the late Judith Clark, first and foremost, whose inspiration it was which brought about the idea for this series. Incidentally, this opening  concert was sold out beforehand, so people who are interested ought to act quickly to be sure of their places at the oncoming one.

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