Enterprising first concert in Martinborough’s splendid little music festival

Martinborough Music Festival
First concert

Michael Houstoun – piano, Wilma Smith – violin, Matthias Balzat – cello

Scarlatti: Piano Sonatas: in A, K 24; F Minor, K 481; E, K 380; A Minor, K 175
Chopin: Cello Sonata in G minor, Op 65
Beethoven: Piano Trio in Bb, Op 97 (“Archduke”)

Martinborough Town Hall

Friday 27 September 2019, 7:30 pm

Here was a festival of chamber music made in heaven. I think that if you’d asked most chamber music regulars to create four programmes of the most beautiful music for a festival, they would have looked very much like what was programmed for Martinborough. I regretted missing the two earlier festivals, 2017 and 2018.

The opening pieces of the first concert were perhaps unexpected in this context. Though Michael Houstoun had a prominent role in the festival, he appeared as a solo pianist only at the beginning, with these four Scarlatti sonatas. Only one of the four (K 380) is well-known; the other three were interestingly chosen, and as always, illuminating, especially in Houstoun’s hands, making no especial gestures towards their origin as sonatas for harpsichord (a few are thought to be possibly for the fortepiano). With discreet dynamic colouring, he created perfectly idiomatic piano pieces.

The first, K 24, marked Presto, made a striking impression: full of flourishes and wild scales that risked occasional slips, which escaped my notice if they happened. The second sonata, K 481 in F minor was in dramatic contrast: fairly slow, (Andante e cantabile), employing gentle syncopation, slightly quirky tunes, with careful ornaments. With its repeats it was probably the longest of the four. It worked particularly well on the piano.

K 380 brought the always welcome touch of the familiar to the recital. It’s well-known for the excellent reason that its tunes are a bit more memorable than many others. And so it withstands the prescribed repeats; and the second part introduces a variant on the tune that’s elegant and free of any flashy element that’s fun but can eventually weary. Houstoun succeeded in interpreting it very convincingly as an authentic piano piece.

Finally K 175 in A minor proved the happy medium, between the impetuosity of K 24 and the comfort of K 380. It seemed given to more interesting thematic variety and hints of counterpoint in the thicker chords in the left hand, in fact in both hands. Scarlatti live seems to have become a rare thing, so this little group of excellent performances of well-contrasted pieces was very welcome.

Chopin’s cello sonata
One of Chopin’s very few ‘chamber music’ works is his cello sonata. Though I’ve heard it several times and even looked speculatively at it long ago, as a very average cello student, it had never seemed a very rewarding example of Chopin’s gifts. Till now, which could well be my first live hearing.

Over the years one has read learned views doubting its value, as if a composer who was so utterly devoted to the piano was incapable of constructing a formal composition that handled the intellectual demands of four movement sonata architecture with any success. It’s the same prejudice that has tended to denigrate Chopin’s piano sonatas, as if anything that’s not a carbon copy of Mozart’s or Beethoven’s sonatas is not ‘First Division’.

In the long first movement there are elegant flourishes from the piano, and there are recognisable melodies; both players were busy almost all the time; though Matthias Balzat’s warm and fluent cello has few solo opportunities, the piano part is a great deal more than mere accompaniment. Over its course, a conviction that it is a neglected masterpiece steadily grows, especially from such musicians.

There’s more recognisable melody in the Scherzo, and both players handled Chopin’s inventiveness with conviction. The Largo third movement was what I’d been waiting for, melodies that here seemed meant for the cello, creating a world of peace and contemplation.

Perhaps the first few minutes of the finale tend to be monotone in spirit, but it generates its own emotional space and Chopin’s own Rondo form and his idiomatic writing for the cello – not merely for piano – leaves any unprejudiced listener impressed and moved.

The ‘Archduke’
The second half was Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’. A brave undertaking , but with greatly experienced players like Houstoun and Wilma Smith, and a gifted young cellist, there was every chance of a fine, moving performance. It’s often likened to a symphony on account of its form and density, as well as its majesty, sonority and buoyancy.  This performance met those expectations, with a violinist of huge experience in both chamber music (she was a founder member of the New Zealand String Quartet) and orchestral music (concertmaster of both the NZSO and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra), a cellist, Balzat, whose qualifications are the very opposite: simply a highly promising young cellist at present studying in Germany at the Robert Schumann Hochschule für Musik in Düsseldorf. His playing displayed accuracy, dynamic sensitivity and remarkable feeling for the character of the music and his place in the trio.

Michael Houstoun, New Zealand’s leading solo pianist, was generally prominent in music that easily allows itself to be played in a grand and larger-than-life manner. And so, in many ways the piano makes its own rules and gauges its sounds simply for their own sake, leaving other players to find their ways through. The relationship can sound unfair, but such experiences here were uncommon. Nevertheless, the two string instruments are often given the lead, as at the beginning of the Scherzo; though this most joyous of movements seemed to not quite capture that spirit. But the rapturous Andante cantabile from its measured introduction from Houstoun alone, generated an opulence and peace that quite fulfilled its conception. And the Finale, Allegro moderato, was handled with all the joyousness and energy that Beethoven expressed so perfectly.

This first concert presaged great rewards from the other three concerts in this splendid little festival.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *