Memorable, Houstoun-led recital of gorgeous piano quartets at Waikanae

Waikanae Music Society

Michael Houstoun and friends (Martin Riseley – violin, Gwendolyn Fisher – viola, Andrew Joyce – cello)

Brahms: Piano Quartet No 2 in A, Op 26
Fauré: Piano Quartet No 1 in C minor, Op 15

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 19 May, 2:30 pm

Concerts featuring Michael Houstoun, alone, or with others, have usually attracted big audiences at Waikanae. This Sunday afternoon concert, which attracted, I’d guess, around 400, couldn’t have been accommodated in any of the usual chamber music venues in Wellington other than the too-large Michael Fowler Centre or perhaps St Mary of the Angels. The advertised line-up for this concert had included Andrew Thomson on the viola; he was replaced on account of a shoulder injury by distinguished Chicago-born, UK resident violist, Gwendolyn Fisher, here as guest associate principal viola in the NZSO.

Brahms’s second piano quartet 
What impressed me at once was the delicacy, intimacy of the playing, which is what the notes themselves as well as the markings call for; apart from the occasional more arresting moments, the beauty of this favourite piano quartet derives from its melodic subtlety and charm and Brahms’s instinctive gift for exploiting the musical potential of the piano quartet which had not been much employed by the great composers: really only Mozart and Schumann (those by Beethoven and Mendelssohn were youthful works). Though it’s in A major, usually a buoyant, happy key, its spirit is restrained, and that characterised most of the first movement, perhaps to the point where it risked affecting something of the music’s energy. Was there a bit more ‘non troppo’ about the playing than ‘Allegro’? Nevertheless, the singular virtues of the playing – clarity, flawless ensemble, lyricism, the flowing, triple rhythm, unity of feeling – eventually came to be of far greater importance, doing full justice to this inspired masterpiece.

The slow movement, Poco Adagio is a remarkable creation, particularly in Brahms’s boldness with prolonged, near-silences, that alternate with rhapsodic episodes that seemed so suited to the collective temperament of the players. Perhaps as a result of the first movement’s refinement, it sometimes seemed emotionally rather close to the feeling of the previous quarter hour. Occasionally, it was possible to feel that the piano was in charge of the sound world; but though I don’t much like singling out individuals in chamber music, there’s that almost uncanny episode early on where Andrew Joyce’s beautiful cello sounds duet with Houstoun’s rhapsodic arpeggios.

Though I love it all, the Adagio haunts me and that’s what this performance did.

Though the Scherzo, third movement, cannot be regarded as jocular (it’s oddly marked Poco allegro) it certainly doesn’t avoid some discreet animation. But that’s an emotion that Brahms leaves mainly to the Trio section whose dynamic moments struck with a sudden burst of energy. With the return of the Poco allegro, I found, somewhat to my surprise, the character of the piano rhythmically a bit brusque, not quite as febrile as the sounds in my head were expecting.

Whatever has gone before, convention expects the last movement to be energetic and probably full of optimism. Up to a point, it was: though still scrupulously sensitive and in lovely accord. But there was a feeling of caution and a calm that lay just below the level of the notes and hardly ever burst forth even with the sort of abandon that Brahms could allow himself. If one might have felt there was a shade too little joie-de-vivre, I think what these musicians played was profoundly in accord with what Brahms composed, and was reproduced here in uniformly beautiful playing. The spirited acceleration of the last few bars did create a fleeting spirit of real delight.

Fauré’s Op 15
Fauré’s first piano trio is probably the best loved of his chamber works. And I found this warm-hearted performance true to this fairly early example of his complex, somewhat enigmatic nature. It began with what I felt just the right amount of energy and charm; any moments when the music strayed or seemed to be distracted seemed to enhance rather than detract from the essence of Fauré’s art.

The second movement came alive with interesting dancing rhythms that shifted evasively and the central, muted section created a gorgeous tapestry of sound. In the third movement, Adagio, I probably expose an odd reaction by sensing a pre-Elgarian quality (30 years too early). It was one of the many occasions when the score sounded like a piano solo along with a separate string trio, most elegantly played.

And the playing of the last movement, Allegro molto, happily confirmed the sound that was in my head from the many hearings of this charming piece, where the solo moments fitted happily with each other and with the warmth of the entire movement.

Where does Fauré’s music come from? 

Chamber music in France till about the time he wrote this, in the late 1870s, hardly existed. In chamber music I can think only of Franck’s four early piano trios and a few works by Lalo composed before this Fauré work (a couple of piano trios, a string quartet and a piano quintet, none of which I’ve heard). Saint-Saëns wrote a piano quartet and a piano quintet in his teens and another quartet in the 1870s but they seem to be ignored. French music was dominated by opera, and few composers even attempted to buck its popularity. So the mainly opera/ballet composers till around the 1870s (Boiëldieu, Auber, Hérold, Halévy, Adam, Thomas, Gounod, Offenbach, Hervé, Lecocq, Delibes) neglected chamber music as well as, for the most part, orchestral music (apart of course from Berlioz). Outside of France, Schumann is regarded as an influence on Fauré, but Schumann’s chamber music doesn’t strike me as having much in common with Fauré’s.

If you’re curious about that era of French music (as I am), an interesting place to start is the website of the Foundation/Palazetto Bru-Zane, based in Venice, but which has made a big impact by funding co-productions of neglected ‘Romantic’ and late 18th century French opera, with numerous French opera houses. In his bicentenary year, Offenbach’s huge output has benefitted greatly; even more than did Gounod in his bicentenary last year.

Farewell Michael Houstoun
This was a gorgeously delivered recital, and a fitting way for Michael Houstoun (probably) to bring his association with the Waikanae Music Society to an end (he has announced his retirement at the end of this year). The society is just one of many musical presenters that has been rather heavily dependent on his name on their concert bill-boards for performances that have meant the difference between breaking even and operating on an eventually fatal deficit. He has been one of a mere handful of New Zealand pianists who gained an international reputation; and he was one, perhaps the only one, to have come back home to enrich the musical life of New Zealand. He has been an important contributor over the many years of the Waikanae society’s concert series and this was certainly the occasion for the many long-standing audience members to reflect on the numerous memorable performances that he has given.


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