Musical and pianistic distinction from Michael Houstoun at Waikanae

Michael Houstoun (piano)

BACH (transcr. LISZT) – Organ Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor BWV 542
LISZT – Two Concert Studies S.145 “Waldesrauschen” (Forest Murmurs) and “Gnomenreigen” (Dance of the Gnomes)
LISZT – Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude) – No. 3 from “Harmonies Poetiques et Religieuses”
GAO PING – Outside the Window (Four Pieces)
CHOPIN – Piano Sonata No. 3 Op.58

Waikanae Memorial Hall
Saturday, 23rd March 2024

Fresh from reviewing Michael Houstoun’s remarkable disc for Rattle Records of Brahms’s Intermezzi for solo piano, I was suitably primed for a live encounter with the pianist in more varied repertoire, which took place at Waikanae as the second of the Music Society’s 2024 concert series.

This presentation consisted firstly of the music of Liszt, featured here as both composer and transcriber, and succeeded by a second half contrasting a contemporary work by Chinese composer Gao Ping with a standard Romantic “classic’’ by Chopin. I thought the blurb accompanying the recital aptly described the afternoon’s programme with the description “appealing and well-crafted”.

Houstoun has always been a staunch advocate of Franz Liszt’s music, with playing whose direct honesty and steadfast inquiry readily brings out the deeper, more intellectual aspects of the composer as well as his undeniable (and often-maligned as superficial) brilliance. As a piece of advocacy of what Liszt was capable of achieving as an all-round musician, the pianist’s choice of the latter’s transcription of JS Bach’s magnificent organ work the Fantasy and Fugue in G Minor BWV 542 was truly inspired – here was the original composer’s grandeur and well-honed complexity sublimely rendered through a different medium, perhaps reflecting Liszt’s own mastery of the organ as much as his ability to reproduce different kinds of sonority on the piano.

I particularly enjoyed the expressive turns of Houstoun’s playing throughout the opening Fantasy, delivering for us all of the music’s arresting declamations, momentums, lyricisms and introversions – then came the Fugue (more familiar to me than the opening of the work), but whose progress was then unexpectedly halted by a malfunctioning of the player’s electronic screen! We were impressed as much as anything by Houstoun’s completely unflappable reaction in spontaneously describing to his agog audience, how it “had gone absolutely blank!”, before making the necessary technical adjustment and then beginning the Fugue again, the music running its course this time round through to that wonderful moment where Liszt’s writing evokes something of the extra sonorities of the organ pedals at the work’s majestic conclusion.

The two contrasting Concert Etudes S.145 followed, the first, Waldesrauschen (Forest Murmurs) notable for beautiful colourings at the beginning marked by the contrastings of the piece’s single sonorous melody line with filigree-like decorative colouristic and rhythmic impulses themselves borne on the melody’s trajectory through the piece’s soundscape. Houstoun worked the music up to a brilliant effervescence of interaction between melody and decoration before the elements seeme to dissolve into one another at the conclusion. The second Etude, Gnomenreigen (Dance of the Gnomes) brings out a mordant wit in the pianist’s characterisation of the dancers, as much rustic as elfin in their scampering movements.

Different realms next awaited the listener with one of Liszt’s masterpieces, the beatifically-named Bénédiction de Dieu dans la Solitude (The Blessing of God in Solitude), one of a set of ten pieces together called Harmonies poétiques et religieuses (S.173), written in 1847 after being inspired by verses written by the poet Alphonse de Lamartine. While its pre-eminence in the set has resulted in the other pieces being unjustly overshadowed, it’s nevertheless deserving of such an honour, as emphasised all over again by Houstoun’s breathtakingly luminous performance – from the outset every note seemed transcendentally certain of its place, every impulse of movement pre-ordained, every colouration of tone glowing from the sounds themselves, as the music proclaimed an ever-burgeoning expression of deepening spiritual ecstasy felt by a soul in communion with God. The music reached a climax, paused to contemplate the realms that had been opened – “Whence comes, O my God, this peace that floods over me?” were the words of de Lamartine that Liszt wrote at the head of the score – and then even more intensely and urgently reiterated the journey, repeating the climax with increased fervour and near-overwhelming surety. After this the sounds gently and peacefully returned us to our lives. Suffice to say that Houstoun’s playing fully enabled these impressions, conveying what seemed to be total commitment to the music’s “transportings of delight”, and the peace wrought by such a journey. We welcomed the interval at such a juncture!

The second half took a more divergent course at first, with music by the Chinese composer Gao Ping, whose career brought him to New Zealand as a performer and teacher, and whose music has been taken up enthusiastically by local performers such as Houstoun, the New Zealand String Quartet and the New Zealand Trio. Gao Ping’s work for solo piano Outside the Window was written for a talented 11 year-old Beijing pianist, Zhang Si-Yin, and dedicated, in the composer’s words, ‘to the people who remain a child at heart”.

Houstoun’s spoken Introduction to the piece established a strong link with the composer and his music, which was borne out by the playing – the opening “On the Way” gave us sounds of a suitably meandering character with stops and starts and different kinds of trajectories (and perhaps even a tumble at one point?), depending upon one’s fancies. The second piece “Chorus of Fire Worms” was even more fanciful, to the point of being schizoid, refrains interrupted by dexterous fingerworked passages. The third “Clouds” gave us more movement and figuration than I expected, with textures beset by decorative filigree passages and heavier, more monumental tones – a busy, crowded sky! Finally, the title “Tiao Pi Jin” referred to a girl’s game of “dancing on fixed rubber bands”, a perpetuum-mobile work in what sounded like 5/4 time, and not unlike NZ composer Philip Dadson’s “Sisters’ Dance” in places with its whirring, mouse-on-a-wheel figures – a momentary impasse late in the music briefly halted the flow, which picked up to deliver the piece’s final, insouciant moment!

Then came the piece to which all the pathways of the afternoon were leading – Chopin’s Third Piano Sonata in B Minor, a landmark of romantic piano composition from an era whose spell continues to exert its thrall to this day. Houstoun stayed not upon the order of his going, but plunged into the work’s opening flourishes with a will, making grand capital out of all the music’s opportune moments of declamation and energy, before a lyrical (and wonderfully extended) second subject seemed to say all that could be said – then, and unlike with most of the performances I have on record, we found ourselves here plunged excitingly into the exposition repeat, adding to the work’s truly heroic character!

With hardly a pause to draw breath at the movement’s conclusion, Houstoun then whirled our sensibilities into the vertiginous figurations of the scherzo, a most exhilarating ride which abruptly ceased with a shout of elation and a quixotic transformation into something resembling a kind of gondola-song whose elusive serenities had a suggestibility which was readily gathered in once again by the scherzo’s vigorously renewed freewheeling attentions.

I thought Houstoun forged the link between the scherzo and the succeeding Largo with tremendous conviction (somewhere in my youthful musical memory is a popular song or dance that uses those same eight declamatory notes that begin the movement, but I simply can’t recall any title or lyrics which would identify it for me!)… the stately dance that grows out of the transition a natural tranquility, though I found myself wanting the subsequent flowing sostenuto passages to sound a shade more limpid and diaphanous, as if the sounds were coming from out of the air as it were – still, with the return of the stately dance passage the initial crepuscular beauties were restored and honour satisfied.

With the finale of course, the pianist was completely in his element, carrying his audience with him through the various reprised surgings of the principal theme and the dancing energies of the glittering running passages, and riding the crest of the music’s excitement right to the final keyboard flourishes and conclusive chordings, after which we applauded until our hands were tingling. To help us properly return to our lives, Houstoun gave us a further helping of the music of Gao Ping, a work called “Wandering”, a lovely, truly ambient Debussian/Ravelian piece of delight and wonderment. But what a recital it was! – music and piano-playing of lasting distinction!

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