Michael Houstoun plays Beethoven

BEETHOVEN – The Last Three Piano Sonatas

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Recorded live at the Gallagher Concert Chamber,

Hamilton, in November 2007

Interview with Michael Houstoun

“The Last Three Beethoven Piano Sonatas”

(Interviewer: Terry Snow)

HRL Morrison Music Trust DVD MMT 4001

What a thoroughly enjoyable and life-enhancing experience! I well remember my excitement, back in the 1990s, when Michael Houstoun began recording the Beethoven sonatas for Trust Records, beginning with the “Middle Period” works (MMT 2001-3), marvellous playing captured in what I thought was perfectly decent and listenable sound-quality. Alas, my excitement was considerably lessened by the recorded sound on subsequent issues in the Trust series, a change of venue for the late sonatas set that followed (MMT 2004-5) producing an oddly cold and brittle piano tone, and throughout the remaining two collections a distressingly dry and airless ambience that did Houstoun’s laudable efforts no favours. This was piano-playing which I thought deserved oceans more support than what Houstoun was being given at the time by those making the recordings – one had only to sample the contemporaneous Radio New Zealand broadcasts of his live performances of the cycle, to hear what ought to have been captured in the studio.

It’s pleasant to report, therefore, that Trust has brought out this beautifully-recorded DVD of a concert featuring Houstoun’s playing of the last three Beethoven sonatas. Interestingly, I found those earlier studio performances of the same works bolder and more sharply-etched, the interpretative points more “gestural” to my ears, forcefully and unequivocally made. One of Michael Houstoun’s strengths as a pianist is for me his sense of utter conviction about how he interprets the music he’s playing. So, however much the listener might want the music to be played a different way at the time, what’s being presented is done with such clear-sightedness and surety it seems the right way for the music to go at that moment of hearing. That direct, focused quality has stood him in good stead over the years – and going back to those Trust CDs not only reconfirmed for me Houstoun’s strength and clarity as an interpreter, but alerted me to finding more flexibility of phrasing and gradations of tone this time round than I was ready to give him credit for previously. I still found the recorded sound of the late sonatas set cold and glassy, though it was only in the lovely A-flat Sonata Op.110 that my ears remained troubled throughout by an acoustic that wouldn’t let the music bloom in places as I thought it ought.

Which, as I’ve said, is where the new DVD especially comes into its own – those opening chords of Op.110, the quickening pulse as the melody rises towards the oncoming sunlight, and the happy, cascading release of tumbling arpeggiated notes are beautifully realised and activated by Houstoun, and winningly captured by Wayne Laird’s sound-recording, made in 2007 at Hamilton’s Gallagher Concert Chamber in front of an appreciative (though entirely unviewed) audience. The second movement – often hammered mercilessly in places by pianists striving for the effect of contrast – here receives an unexaggerated yet articulate performance, eschewing the “whisper-then-roar’ approach which some interpreters use to illustrate the picture of a composer prone to violent mood-swings and temperamental instabilities. Houstoun keeps the chordal introduction to the slow movement moving, equating the musical line with declamation rather than thought, and easing naturally into the “Klagender Gesang” lament, everything kept clear-eyed and poised, awaiting the fugue, eloquently voiced throughout, and given a subtle warmth of expansion at the climax. As with the other interpretations on the DVD, Houstoun seems to me to have embraced a “less-is-more” principle, relying more on the paying out of rhythms within phrases and longer sentences, and allowing lines to develop their own buoyancy in such a way that they speak with an engaging naturalness. The second “lament” intensifies the mood of the first, bringing the music to the point that the pianist characterises so movingly in the interview which follows the concert on the DVD – the spirit sinking almost to the point of dissolution, before finding the spark that re-activates life, and gradually emerging from the darkness via the repeated chords whose sounds build upwards and outwards in a quietly, and deeply affecting way.

The remaining two sonatas in concert on the DVD largely repeat that paradoxical process of enrichment and simplification of what the pianist achieved in his earlier recorded performances. With Op.109 I thought the earlier performance a shade more daring and energetic – surprising, really, as the received wisdom is that musicians sound “more like themselves” away from the recording studio and in front of an audience (I don’t have the pianist’s radio broadcast performances of the 1990s to hand to fully back up that statement, unfortunately!). Much is shared between the readings – the balance at the very opening between structural focus and visionary freedom remains finely judged, while the march conveys similar energy and purpose, the studio recording giving an edge to the sound in forte that can both stimulate and irritate, something that the DVD renders far more fully and roundedly,¬†interestingly,¬†at once seeming to liberate and “contain” the playing. But throughout the theme-and-variation movement Houstoun brings out the varying characters of the episodes with remarkable surety, making so rich and heartfelt those elongated ascents to the cadence-points of release in the fifth variation (again, a mite stronger and even theatrical in the studio; and more direct and simpler before the audience, though no less telling in effect).

Rehearing the studio performance of Op.111 after playing the DVD I thought the former very fine, more involved and deeply-considered than I remember acknowledging when the recordings were first issued, especially in the second movement. In the interview on the DVD Houstoun talks of the “pure drama” of the key of C minor in this music, and both CD and DVD performance bring this out – the rawness and cosmic blackness of the opening unison leaps, and the focused energy of the dotted-rhythm chords and the rolling demisemiquavers “tell” magnificently. Houstoun hurls himself into this drama in the studio, the cool, splintery recording doing the essence of this work less damage than to its A-flat companion. On the DVD the attack in concert isn’t quite as furious, though the pianist’s left hand slightly splits the lower note of the second downward unison plunge, pointing the jaggedness of the gesture further. However, the cumulative energies of the spiky unisons and the dogged passagework register just as strongly as before – and with the newer recording the listener is mercifully freed from the occasional wincing as the double fortes hit home. Again, the energy, tensile clarity and vigour of the playing is remarkable, though less of a full-frontal attack than a cumulation of strength and energy, this time around, the big chords near the movement’s end skilfully weighted so that the onslaught is gradually allowed to play itself out.

Perhaps it’s just that before the audience the pianist’s expression is simpler, less inclined towards extremes and gesturings, as if the whole conception of the music has tightened, but in a totally free and life-enhancing way – also, as if, in front of an audience, Houstoun felt less bound to project, no longer attempting, as in the studio, to counter the remoteness of the ears and sensibilities for which his playing was intended. And I wonder if the concert venue’s warm ambience meant that Houstoun didn’t have to hold onto the final chord of the movement for so long, the silences nicely carrying the resonances over to the shared-key opening of the second movement’s beginning.

In the second movement, with its vigorous “dance of life” sequence (Beethoven’s most spectacular foray into “boogie-woogie”) I thought the pianist’s placings of the various episodes very beautifully done, especially the later minor-key introductions leading to trills whose lightness of being were seem to momentarily leave the physical world for spiritual realms, the hands delineating the spaces between by exploring the keyboard’s extremities, then teasingly fusing the two, with both corporeal dance sequences and stratospheric trillings, the leave-taking from which concludes the work. Houstoun holds his audience spellbound with the simplicity of it all, at the end letting the silence surge back into the spaces with complete assurance.

As if the music and playing weren’t enough to satisfy, Trust has generously included an interview with the pianist, one whose content and manner could easily warrant a review of its own. Enough to say that in the space of forty minutes pianist and interviewer (Terry Snow) explore in some considerable depth different aspects of these remarkable works and Houstoun’s response to them. I thought the latter came across most impressively, with comments at once thoughtful and spontaneous-sounding, making many insightful points about the music and clearly expressing his deeply-considered reactions to the challenges the music poses, as well as the delights it bestows on the player. I also appreciated, for comfort’s sake, the extent to which the producer allows occasional hesitancies and word-slips common to normal conversation in the interests of flow and naturalness. There really isn’t enough space in these columns to do the whole thing justice (I’ve already over-indulged myself and stretched the patience of readers on behalf of the musical performances);¬† but those who purchase this beautifully-wrought DVD to experience the thrill of hearing and seeing New Zealand’s foremost exponent of Beethoven’s piano music play some of his greatest works will be charmed at being allowed a valuable additional insight into the workings of a great musician’s approach to that same music. Definitely a must-buy, in my opinion – and a dollop of wishful encouragement to those involved – dare we hope for more Beethoven from the same source? – and why, I wonder, does the “Hammerklavier” come so readily to my mind?