Thoughtful, enterprising programming from Michael Houstoun performed with conviction and sensitivity

Hutt Valley Chamber Music presents:
Michael Houstoun at the Lower Hutt Little Theatre


CHOPIN – Four Impromptus
SATIE – Three Gymnopedies
SCHUBERT – Piano Sonata in G Major D.894

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Lower Hutt Little Theatre

Thursday, April 12th, 2018

I remember reading somewhere amongst the material advertising this Hutt Valley Chamber Music concert a passage quoting Michael Houstoun as saying he thought the choice of repertoire here had produced “the most perfect recital he had ever put together”. After listening to his strong, deeply considered playing of all three works, I felt bound to concur with his judgement, with each of his choices having some quality that seemed to either complement, disarm or resonate within aspects of the other pieces.

Those items affected most markedly by the juxtapositionings were the recital’s first-half pieces, Houstoun cannily placing each of Satie’s Three Gymnopedies in turn between the four Chopin Impromptus. Not only did this open up the somewhat “moments-per-minute” effect of the Impromptus’ richly-wrought imaginings (the pieces, incidentally, were not composed as a “set”, nor did the composer stipulate any such ordering in performance), but adroitly took the listener away from any superficial feelings of “sameness” between Satie’s delicately-wrought dream-like dances.

It was a masterstroke, really, enabling we in the audience to appreciate each of the seven individual pieces on their own merits, the Satie pieces helping to underlining the uniqueness of each of the very different Chopin works, which in turn gave each of the “Gymnopedies” the chance to refresh our listening-sensibilities in disarmingly different ways.

The overall effect on our reception of the Schubert work which made up the second half was a kind of activation of an open-hearted spirit towards time and space, wrought by the Satie pieces in particular, but also by the freely-ranging traversal of incident characterising parts of the Chopin works. With its long-breathed opening movement, the Schubert Sonata was not an experience to be treated either lightly or with any impatience – and Houstoun’s care for both detail and overall atmosphere throughout the first half had, I think, helped prepare us for the experience of what was to follow.

Beginning with the first Impromptu (Op. 29 in A-flat Major), the pianist got things under way with a whimsically teasing melody sounded over a quiet whirlwind of triplets, leading first to a haunting chromatic “dying fall” sequence like the sighing of the wind, and then to the theme’s excitable but brief ascent, Houstoun easing gracefully into a beautifully weighted chordal middle section before teasing the music back to the opening. In the wake of such frenetic note-spinning, the first of Satie’s “Gymnopedies” took us to “other realms”, the plaintive melody over measured steps drawing us away from “the busy beat of time” and into solitary contemplation.

The following Impromptu (Op.36 in F-sharp Major) warmed and enriched this mood with beautifully crepuscular colourings, and a melody whose decorated contourings led to a Liszt-like passage, almost religious in feeling. Houstoun then beautifully set in motion a quietly-voiced dotted rhythm which gradually  built up both tones and energies, becoming almost warlike, in anticipation of Liszt’s “Funerailles” (which it predated by a decade of years) before disarmingly returning to the opening melody, this time with a triplet accompaniment and swirling decorative impulses. Again I fancied we heard a Lisztian voice (redolent of the Italian Book of “Annees de Pelerinage”) before a couple of emphatic chords finished the piece. The second “Gymnopedie” again allowed our sensibilities some respite, Houstoun’s playing giving the piece’s barely-disturbed stillnesses a hint of human breath, rather than applying a cool, marmoreal finish – a quality which I thought touched on that state we call the “transcendent”, something still living yet elevated to a higher plane – remarkable.

Very much like the previous Impromptu’s F-sharp Major, the third Chopin piece (G-flat Major Op.51) possessed a similar tonal warmth, but rather more fluid movement, Houstoun bringing out the music’s subtleties of light and shade with great surety, and allowing us some almost voluptuous enjoyment of the harmonies at various points.  Such unashamedly indulgent richness of course found its antithesis in the Third Gymnopedie which followed – though, of the three Satie pieces, I’ve always found this one the least “remote”. It’s certainly been the one most often transcribed for different combinations of instruments, including the full orchestra. I thought Houstoun’s reading again imbued the piece with some feeling, even a certain tenderness, despite his own comments in the programme note regarding the music in general as being “definitions of aloneness”.

The fourth of Chopin’s Impromptus is something of a “sport”, being composed much earlier, and published posthumously – as Houstoun remarks in his progamme-note, it scarcely justifies the “Fantasie-Impromptu” title posterity has bestowed on it, but is ironically the most well-known of the four pieces (a flatmate of mine of former times claimed he knew only one classical music “tune” he could play on the piano, it being the melody making up the middle section of the work – admittedly, a tune that’s eminently singable!). Though a mite scornful of the piece on paper, Houstoun gave it as much meticulous attention as he did everything on the programme, capturing the “swirling” character of the outer sections, and playing the famous tune with wonderful eloquence, though I thought the coda’s tricky syncopations almost tripped his fingers up for the merest instant.

So, then, to the Schubert, the first half of the recital having, I felt, primed our sensibilities with plenty of varied expression. I had heard Houstoun play this work at Paekakariki a number of years ago (, and thought his performance for the most part “truly praiseworthy”, with only some slight reservations bothering me regarding the “stiffness” of some of his phrase-endings during the first movement. This time round I couldn’t say I was bothered by any such quality, the pianist giving the opening chords the spaciousness they needed to fully resound, nicely differentiating major and minor-key utterances, and setting the more animated sections beautifully in motion, allowing the decorative filigree voices plenty of room to fill out their phrases without sounding rushed. As the pianist did actually give us the important first-movement repeat, there were no critical gasps of shock, horror and disbelief from any quarter besmirching the ambiences!

The movement’s development section with its massive minor-key chordings galvanised our sensibilities, as well it ought, Houstoun’s attack here urgent and imposing, though he played the dancing episodes that followed almost defiantly, even cheekily! – the two moods sparred with one another until the onset of those heartbreaking sequences led the music away from the conflict and back to the music’s very opening, by this time seemingly a world away! I thought the pianist’s addressing of the music a shade tougher at the outset, here, stiffened by resolve through conflict, though the movement’s ending featured richly-wrought tones and spacious phrasing which left we listeners in thrall to the range and scope of the music’s journey.

The Andante movement (the description “slow” seems somewhat redundant in the wake of the first movement’s “heavenly length”) was given plenty of light and shade at a tempo which kept things flowing throughout the opening – I found myself thinking while Houstoun was playing that my mother (who was a piano teacher) would have loved what he was doing throughout this sequence in generating a combination of such warmth and clarity. Having charmed our sensibilities thus, Houstoun proceeded to give the music’s central section plenty of real swagger and muscularity at the outset, though still bringing out the lyricism of the minor/major key sequences that followed with real feeling. At its first return Schubert almost cheekily decorates the opening, in places with great finesse, underlining the music’s happiness/anxiety ambivalence, while after a repeat of the agitations, the opening proper reappears, undecorated, but with the melody suddenly taking flight, Houstoun here seeming to surrender to the music in an unguarded moment, giving to the movement’s end some delightfully flowing and lyrical playing, some of the most natural-sounding from him I’ve heard.

That impression continued throughout the Scherzo with its quirkily placed “grace notes”, some flailing about, and others sounding like mere impulses of droll wit. I loved Houstoun’s treatment of these (as I did previously), the pianist taking great care to both “sound” and differentiate their impact on the music, the forthright ones almost abrasive, and the softer ones impish and po-faced in a way that made me chuckle out loud! And what an effect Houstoun’s playing of the Trio wrought – like a sudden sleight-of-hand movement taking the sounds into an almost childlike world of happiness and contentment!

Houstoun launched the finale’s opening with playful-sounding gestures, the composer toying with impulses of energy as if deciding what to do next. Breaking into an infectious jogtrot got the music’s blood pumping, giving rise to those seemingly endless Schubertian sequences, the music modulating freely and joyously. A more sombre theme darkened the music momentarily, Houstoun’s powerful left hand keeping the darkness at bay to almost orchestral effect, before the jog-trot came to the music’s rescue once again, and brought everything back into the sunshine, for the opening sequences to return – Houstoun momentarily brought our hearts into our mouths by turning up the candlepower for the main theme’s sudden upward leap, before settling things back into a state of contentment for the coda’s brief but eloquent farewell.

A profoundly enjoyable and thought-provoking recital – all credit to Michael Houstoun for his inventive programming and his skills as an interpreter in bring his vision to us so successfully.

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