Waikanae Music Society presents Michael Houstoun (piano)
Bach Toccata in c minor BWV 911
Brahms Variation and Fugue on a theme by Handel, Op 24
Chopin Berceuse, Op 57
Impromptu in F#, Op 36
Rachmaninoff Prelude in Eb, Op 23, No 2
Prelude in Eb, Op 23 No 6
Étude-tableau in Eb minor, Op 39, No 5
Prelude in D, Op 23, No 4
Étude-tableau in C minor Op 33, No 3
Étude-tableau in D, Op 39, No 9
Memorial Hall, Waikanae
Sunday 11 June 2023
Piano recitals by renowned pianists, featuring major works of the piano repertoire, are now rare in Wellington. Paul Lewis, one of the leading pianists of his generation, dropped in for a concerto appearance with the NZSO, but though he has recorded all the Beethoven Sonatas and much of Schubert, he was not given the opportunity to play these in a solo recital – a sad state of affairs when one recalls from earlier times the anticipated pleasure of hearing any visiting virtuoso in both the concerto repertoire with the NZSO and on the solo recital platform.
How grateful, therefore concert goers must be to the Waikanae Music Society for putting on solo concerts such as that recently given by Michael Houstoun. Michael Houstoun is something of an ‘Artist in Residence NZ’, widely recognized for his insightful recordings of the Beethoven Sonatas and his series of concerts that featured Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues. Notably, in this concert, he played also a bracket of works by Rachmaninoff, recognizing the 150th anniversary of Rachmaninoff’s birth and 80th anniversary of his death. However,the first half of the concert was Bach and Brahms.
Bach – Toccata in c minor BWV 911
This is a virtuoso piece that Bach wrote to show off his skills as a keyboard player. It starts with a playful theme, which evolves into a complex substantial fugue. Houstoun shaped every note, every phrase with care. As a pianist he had complete mastery, but it is the thought behind the notes that stood out, how the work was built up, note by note.
Brahms – Variation and Fugue on a theme by Handel, Op 24
This is one of the monumental works of the piano repertoire, 25 variations on a simple theme that Handel employed for his set of variations. But Brahms’ work is on a much grander scale. It ranges from the whimsical, the simple, playful, to the dramatic, culminating in the fugue that asks profound questions about the meaning of life. It is a mirror of life’s journey with all its various facets. It is Brahms’ tribute to an earlier, courtly age, yet reflecting the deep thoughtful romantic vision of his time. Houstoun weighted every note. His playing of the fugue, the climax of the work, was restrained, he left its grandeur to the imagination of the listener. It was a beautifully articulated playing. One may hear different interpretations of this work, but probably never a more disciplined and clear reading. It was a memorable performance.
Chopin – Berceuse, Op 57 , Impromptu in F#, Op 36
Again, in these well-known pieces every sound was clearly defined. Houstoun left it up to the listener to seek out the magic, the emotion. Both of the works were carefully shaped, with a lot of thought behind every note.
Rachmaninoff – Prelude in Bb, Op 23, No 2, Prelude in Eb, Op 23 No 6
Étude-tableau in Eb minor, Op 39, No 5, Prelude in D, Op 23, No 4
Étude-tableau in C minor Op 33, No 3 , Étude-tableau in D, Op 39, No 9
These works, both early and middle-period Rachmaninoff, are far less well known than his piano concertos, his Paganini Variations for piano and orchestra, his symphonies, or his big Choral works, but in this anniversary year of Rachmaninoff’s birth it was appropriate to have a glimpse of the pre-American Rachmaninoff, secluded on his estate. Houstoun selected these pieces carefully, three each from his Preludes and his longer Étude-tableau and he performed them in two sections, suggesting that they formed complementary movements of two larger, sonata-like pieces. Perhaps, as the program notes say, ‘Rachmaninoff was proud to follow in the footsteps of Chopin’, and these works in some ways harked back to the Chopin of Paris and French romanticism, but they also reflected a very different world, one which Rachmaninoff’s detractors would regularly claim his music refused to enter.
Listening to the first Prelude it was not Chopin, but Moussorgsky that came to mind, as also with the last Étude-tableau in D, Op 39, No 9. These are passionate pieces, but Houstoun played them with characteristic restraint. Not for him the dramatic climaxes, or the swaying emotions – “Just look at the notes, boy, play it as it written!” he seemed to be saying.
This was a fine and memorable concert. It left listeners with lots of thoughts about the meaning of the music that they had just heard. We are fortunate to have Michael Houstoun here as a pillar of New Zealand musical life. He made his listener think not only about the music’s emotions, but also the creative processes reflected by the notes on paper, and from the black and white keys of the piano, from and upon which he gave us his unique interpretations of the music.
Michael Houstoun will be back again later this year, on 27 August, playing with the violinist Bella Hristova in an interesting program of sonatas by Poulenc, Ravel and Fauré.