Michael Houstoun bows out triumphantly at Waikanae in the company of the Amici Ensemble

Waikanae Music Society

Michael Houstoun and the Amici Ensemble (led by Donald Armstrong)
The Amici Ensemble: Emma Barron and Anna van der Zee (violins), Andrew Thomson (viola), Ken Ichinose (cello), Oleksandr Gunchenko (double bass), Bridget Douglas and Kirstin Eade (flutes), Douglas Mews (harpsichord)

J S Bach:
Trio sonata from The Musical Offering
Partita No 4 in D, BWV 898
Brandenburg Concerto No 4 in G, BWV 1049
Keyboard Concerto in D minor, BWV 1052

Waikanae Memorial Hall

Sunday 9 February, 2:30 pm

The first concert in the Waikanae Music Society’s 2020 season welcomed the audience with a ‘Full House’ notice at the door: meaning that around 500 filled the hall. It was a celebration of Michael Houstoun’s long career: his last concert for the society which has hosted him regularly since 1986. He played in the company of Donald Armstrong’s Amici Ensemble which has also been a major and very popular contributor to Waikanae’s concerts. It was an inspiring combination.

The programme that was devised was particularly thoughtful and appropriate, serving, somewhat incidentally perhaps, to display a range of Bach’s instrumental music not all of which is well known. One solo piano piece and Bach’s best known keyboard concerto, both featured Houstoun at the piano. Giving Houstoun time to catch his breath, the ensemble, including Douglas Mews at the harpsichord, played the Trio Sonata from The Musical Offering for flute, violin and continuo and the fourth Brandenburg Concerto.

Attention to the RNZ Concert crisis
But before they began president Germana Nicklin spoke briefly about the crisis that was upper-most in everyone’s thoughts – Radio New Zealand management’s intention to get rid of RNZ Concert, firing almost the entire staff, and giving its FM transmission network to a new programme devoted to what the management thinks are the tastes of young people, let’s say teen-agers. She invited Elizabeth Kerr to the stage, the former manager of Concert FM, as it used to be called (no longer if Thompson and Macalister have their way: it’ll be Concert AM, only some of the year and with no obtrusive human voices). And Elizabeth read a passionate message from Wilma Smith, founding first violin of the New Zealand String Quartet and later, Concertmaster of both the NZSO and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. There was no mistaking her dismay and anger at the barbaric plans.

The Trio Sonata
But to the music at hand. The Trio Sonata played by Armstrong, flautist Bridget Douglas and cellist Ken Ichinose, with Mews with the harpsichord continuo, was one of the many varied pieces of The Musical Offering that Bach sent to Frederick the Great in 1747. It’s entitled Sonata sopr’il Soggetto Reale (‘Sonata on a Royal theme’). The trio sonata form was common enough at the time and Bach wrote a number of others, but this one is unusually technical and makes formidable play with the theme that the King had invited him to use for an elaborate fugue. In fact it matched the gravity of our situation, sombre, in a minor key, in spite of the generally happy character of the flute.

The performance set the benchmark for the concert, as all the pieces were played without the introduction of any unwritten decoration (as far as I could tell), or the imposition of any inappropriate emotional character beyond what is intrinsic to the notes on the page. And this continued to characterise the two following Allegro movements. It offered proof of their ability to sustain the serious character of the King’s theme. Bach’s seriousness pf purpose seemed to be illuminated in the extended Andante movement, spacious and thoughtful.

Keyboard Partita No 4 
Houstoun’s choice of the fourth of the challenging keyboard Partitas was a further mark of the concert’s serious yet deeply satisfying character. Each of the six partitas has three movements in common (Allemande, Courante, Sarabande and a Gigue in all but one case), along with a wide variety of other movements. No 4 is the only one that opens with an ‘Overture’ and it presented Houstoun with a formidable opportunity to express what I suppose can only be discovered in the greatest classical music. And that undoubtedly illustrates what great art can offer to those who have troubled to cultivate and familiarise themselves with the musical material that composers like Bach used to explore the depths of human experience. Nevertheless, the fugal character of the Overture’s second part avoided undue complexity and was the more rewarding for that.

Houstoun seemed to have discovered how to handle the most interesting and revelatory aspects of each subsequent movement. In some ways the second movement, Allemande, is both the longest and the most elaborate, with a subtle change of mood following pauses at the end of each paragraph. Longer pauses occur in the slow Sarabande and though it’s not a slow movement that plumbs the profundities of the Chaconne of the second violin partita, Houstoun managed to suggest a depth that made a singular impression.

The Gigue struck me as a particularly rewarding movement in Houstoun’s hands, with fugal elements and episodes for the left hand alone that led to complex polyphony.

Brandenburg Concerto No 4
All players arrived on stage to play the fourth Brandenburg concerto, with Douglas Mews again on the harpsichord, and others as named above. Each of the six Brandenburgs is different; No 4 has the character of a concerto grosso, featuring a group of three (or so) solo instruments (two flutes and Armstrong’s violin) and the balance (‘ripieno’), a small core of strings and harpsichord.

As with the Trio Sonata, the sound of the harpsichord didn’t project very well. While it was often audible in the earlier piece, among a larger number of modern instruments in the Brandenburg concerto, it failed to make much contribution. Nevertheless, the first and third movements were particularly lively and entertaining. The Andante might have been on the slow side; perhaps better described as careful and studied, ending with slow chords that introduced the last movement. The splendid fugue was particularly effective, shared interestingly among the three solo instruments. Donald Armstrong enjoyed an impressively virtuosic solo passage towards the end.

Piano Concerto in D minor 
Bach’s keyboard concerto, No 1 in D minor, really does demand performance on the piano and I felt that its choice as Houstoun’s last performance for Waikanae again demonstrated his serious and intelligent approach to this occasion and to music generally. In spite of the many great performances of the popular and spectacular piano concertos that comprise part of the symphony orchestral repertoire, Bach’s No 1 in D minor is a singular work that seems to be rarely played, though I remember clearly a performance, my first, unsurprisingly, in the old Concert Chamber of the Town Hall (it shocked me that it was replaced by a smaller space in the shape of the Ilott Theatre). It was, perhaps, in the 1950s (the pianist and the orchestral ensemble I can’t recall). Its seriousness and power impressed me then just as this performance did on Sunday.

All the instruments contributed with distinction, as they had in the Brandenburg, often playing in unison, without a great deal of fugal or contrapuntal writing. It’s widely considered a major preliminary step towards the piano concerto that emerged in the second half of the 18th century, the piano no longer just a polite member of the ensemble but a striking solo contributor. Towards the end there’s a striking dialogue between piano and cello and a virtuosic cadenza.

As with the performances of the three previous works, the most striking characteristic was the sense of integrity and honesty with which all players handled the music: no straining for ‘Romantic’ colours and emotions: just the notes in the score played with honesty and faithfulness.

This was a distinguished and momentous concert in which every aspect had been carefully studied and prepared. I hope that Michael Houstoun will be able to reflect on the occasion with as much gratitude and pleasure as the audience which, at the end, rose in its entirety to its feet.


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