Michael Houstoun
Michael Houstoun - Reviews

In these pages you will find transcripts of recent printed reviews. At times I will add my own comments, depending on the nature of the criticism or the quality of the writing (watch out if there are spelling mistakes, poor grammar, or shoddy sentence construction!). At other times I may invite visitors to the website to submit their own reviews if they think they can come up with something better….

I might even write my own reviews on occasion! Read on.

"Why, Sir, a fly may sting a stately horse and make him wince. But the one is still a horse, while the other remains a fly."
Dr. Samuel Johnson   

Franz Liszt (to student whilst travelling on a train): "Come and make up a fourth for a game of whist."
Student: "But, revered master, I don't know how to play cards."
Liszt: "Then you can be the critic."


After a lifetime of being reviewed by people of varying competence, of having my playing dismissed, praised to the skies and everything in between, I am finally ‘over it’ – to use the current expression – and will post no more new reviews on this page. If you really have to read reviews, then searching on the internet will probably find you some from other sources.
Reviewing used to be considered a public service, a way for knowledgeable individuals to help raise the level of the general awareness of music and its qualities as revealed in performance. But these days it is merely a vehicle for exercising the various neuroses of disaffected, underpaid men (mainly) who spend far too much time listening to recordings and have forgotten what a concert actually is. It is strange how many of them seem to actually hate the audience.
The collapse or downsizing of newspapers has forced a lot of reviewing online, but as I could easily manufacture a fake online identity and review myself I am reluctant to credit the often pretentious and tedious material one finds on the web.
Besides, the web has shown us that EVERYONE is a critic and can have his/her marvelous insights published in the blinking of an eye – only, of course, to be countered by the next fabulous critic on the list.
If you really want to know what a concert is like, buy a ticket and go. You’ll be doing everyone a favour and you will keep the artform alive.




I have heard - surprise surprise - that there are artists using pseudonyms and reviewing themselves on the internet. I suppose it was only a matter of time, what with newspapers shrinking and professional critics going the way of the dinosaurs. And I guess if you can't get a good review any other way what are you going to do? - reviews have always been a part of an artist's 'calling card'.

I think self-reviewing is strictly for ethically-challenged slime, but given the ever-accelerating degeneration of the internet it may very soon become de  rigueur and artists will be judged on the quality of their bullshit. So I thought I'd get in some practice. To hell with pseudonyms though.

First, the headline:

Ecstatic transformations - a concert to die for

Last Saturday evening the good music-loving citizens of Connington had the rare opportunity of hearing a performance by living-legend, Micheal Houston. Part of the heightened sense of anticipation around this event was occasioned by memories of the fiasco that was his previous visit to our town. The refurbished coolroom in the former abattoir had shown itself to have a most sympathetic acoustic but we had made the mistake of asking the owner of the piano dealership for his recommendation regarding the tuning of the piano. Mr Housten was barely a page into Clair de lune  - such a sensitive concert opener - when two strings unwound, a third broke, and both pedals ceased to function. However, this time we asked the pianist for his recommendation and the piano worked perfectly.

Mr Hoostin began his recital with selections from the Goldberg Variations by one of those Bachs (what a family!) and when I looked around me as he was playing I was astonished to find that people had changed colour. I don't mean anything racist by that - the good citizens of Connington couldn't turn into Chinamen if their lives depended on it. No, it was as if everyone had arrived stained and filthy and now, suddenly, all the vileness and crud that had been paralysing their souls was magically erased. The room simply glowed with their purity.

This was nothing compared to what happened after the next item on the programme. Mr Huston chose one of the Beethoven symphonies for which he has become famous, the Waldstein (pronounced 'wold-steen' according to Mrs Chelsea 'Sugar' Fforbes, the mayor's wife and doyenne of the local arts scene). You could have heard a pin drop from first note to last and I was shocked when there was no applause at all after the tumultuous last page. Again I looked around and saw that not one bottom was touching the seat beneath it. The music lovers of Connington were levitating - en masse.

After what seemed three lifetimes the audience lowered again and at the first connection of backside with stackachair there was an eruption of applause, clapping and screaming, whistling and shouting, and as one the citizens rushed the stage. Mr Hughston is clearly used to such reactions and was nowhere to be seen, having slipped away in the mesmerised silence. Unfortunately Mrs Fforbes, who always sits in the front row and often reacts visibly to every phrase, was knocked down and trampled in the stampede. She was heard to say just before her last breath "I die easy knowing there is nothing worth living for after hearing playing like that". Dr Strange who attended her left the concert carrying her shoes.

Perhaps I don't need to add that Mr Hightone did not play the second half and I was personally sorry not to hear his Improvisations on Five New Zealand Pop Songs.  





Poignant and elegantly told

Rita and Douglas, Circa Theatre, Wellington, 2-12 April 2014
Reviewed by Laurie Atkinson
DomPost 4 April 2014

The rest of the country has been fortunate in having been able to see over the past three years one of those rare theatrical occasions when all the stars have miraculously aligned.
At last it's Wellington's turn to enjoy this simple but superbly presented chamber piece about two artists, Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn, whose first meeting was in a Lambton Quay café in 1941.

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by Margot Hannigan, Nelson Mail

The spiritual journey that Michael Houstoun has made to celebrate his 60th birthday is truly inspiring. I admire his stamina, his incredible memory, his dedication and aloneness.

This was the sixth of seven recitals of Beethoven sonatas throughout New Zealand, and Houstoun has kept the most challenging sonatas of Beethoven's mature years until the end.

The concert began with Sonata No 4 in E Flat Op 7, written in 1796, I was immediately aware of Houstoun's total concentration, the rhythmic precision of rippling triplets, the strength rather than the volume of his fortissimos, and the engrossing contrasts of mood he brought out in the music...

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By Stephen Fisher, Manawatu Standard

Seemingly only yesterday Michael Houstoun thrilled audiences throughout New Zealand with his stunning performances of Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas and now, two decades later, Houstoun has returned to these works, considered by many to be at the very heart of piano literature, providing fresh insight and undoubted maturity.

The Moonlight programme included sonatas No 4, 14,15 and 31, composed between 1796 and 1822 and together they clearly showed the development of Beethoven as a composer and performer...

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Perfect foils

'Between Darkness and Light', Christchurch Arts Festival, 15 September 2013
Reviewed by Francis Yapp
Listener, 23 September 2013

Soprano Jenny Wollerman and pianist Michael Houstoun explored the magical space between dusk and dawn in Between Darkness and Light, an enchanting recital of art song from the Belle Époque to the present day. The songs included some well-loved favourites such as Debussy's Clair de lune, Fauré's En sourdine, and Beim Schlafengehen from Strauss's Four Last Songs, as well as Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Brahms, Wolf and Vaughan Williams, and more recent compositions by Madeleine Dring and André Previn.
The choice of songs was superb...

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Houstoun in fine touch with sonatas

Beethoven ReCycle Programme Four
Wellington Town Hall, 30 June 2013
Reviewed by John Button, DomPost, 3 July 2013

After the first three concerts in Michael Houstoun's return to Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas, which were held in the dryness of the Ilott Concert Chamber, we enjoyed the fourth in the lovely open acoustics of the town hall.  And how it suited the name sonata in this recital, No.23 in F minor, Op.57 'Appassionata'.
Here was wonderfully fiery playing, fully the equal of any Houstoun has given of it in the past, with perhaps an even greater judgment of dynamics on a piano that must have shuddered in anticipation...

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A recital beyond words

Beethoven ReCycle Programme Four
Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, 26 June 2013
Reviewed by Ray Watchman, Manawatu Guardian, 4 July 2013

Heartfelt thanks must go to Chamber Music New Zealand for having taken up Michael Houstoun's suggestion that he again perform the full cycle of the 32 Beethoven piano sonatas for which he gained much critical acclaim in 1993.
Palmerston North has been fortunate in gaining two of the 40 recitals, covering seven performance programmes in the 2013 series - the first on Wednesday June 26, centred on Sonata 23 in F minor, the mighty Appassionata, with the second scheduled for October 15, featuring the much-loved Moonlight sonata.  As an aside, this series marks Houstoun's 60th birthday year...

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Sonatas played to seduce

Beethoven ReCycle Programme Four
Regent on Broadway, Palmerston North, 26 June 2013
Reviewed by Tina White, Manawatu Standard, 27 June 2013

An open letter to Michael Houstoun: last night, sir, you seduced me in the most auditory way possible.  I had never heard you play in person (I was out of New Zealand for a long time) and at your concert of five Beethoven piano sonatas at the Regent on Broadway, there were times when I could hardly believe my ears.  Every crystal note you played seemed to have a life of its own, spinning musical stories and building mind-pictures...

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Rapturous applause for fine performance

Beethoven ReCycle Programme Four
Municipal Theatre, Napier, 23 June 2013
Reviewed by Peter Williams, Hawkes Bay Today, 25 June 2013

Bravo! Bravo! The audience was immediately on its feet in rapturous, sustained applause as the last notes sounded at the end of Michael Houstoun's superlative performance of Beethoven's Sonata No.23 in F Minor, Opus 57 'Appassionata'.  This is one of the truly great works of the piano repertoire, given a performance which could hardly be bettered...

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(For more reviews of Programme Four of the Beethoven sonata ReCycle please go to www.chambermusic.co.nz and click on News and Reviews)


'Between Darkness and Light', a recital with Jenny Wollerman
Festival of Colour, Wanaka, 17 April, 2013
Reviewed by Nigel Zega, Otago daily Times, 18/4/2013

'Between Darkness and Light' paired Wellington soprano Jenny Wollerman with Michael Houstoun in a captivating recital of spellbinding beauty and depth.
Tony Rabbit's inspired lighting and set design transformed the Lake Wanaka Centre's functional stage to a place of timeless style, a portal to another world where music and poetry could work their magic with seductive ease.
Wollerman and Houstoun kept the songs short, interspersed with sensitive Houstoun solos.
The performers explored emotions, sights and feelings that are most likely to arise in the hours between evening and morning - times of stillness and reflection, of sadness and joy.
This was an exquisite theatrical recital, beautifully and expressively rendered with both power and restraint by performers at the top of their game.


Houstoun's homage to Beethoven

Pianist's unerring fingers draw magic from composer's 32 sonatas
Beethoven ReCycle, Programme Two
Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, 20 April 2013
Reviewed by William Dart, NZ Herald, 23/4/2013

Michael Houstoun's ReCycle, with the pianist tackling all 32 Beethoven sonatas, has begun its historic journey around the country.
Dean Zillwood's portrait on the programme cover caught the determination of this man, revisiting a project first undertaken in 1994.  Inside, Houstoun explains how the impulsive energy of youth has been tempered with, among other things, self-trust.
The concert began with the disarmingly simple Op.49 No.1, treated with no less gravity than mightier works yet to come.  The Andante was moulded with classical precision while the second movement had no fear of dancing hilarity...

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Sonatas rare treat in recital

Beethoven ReCycle Programme Three
Ilott Theatre, Wellington, 15 April 2013
Reviewed by John Button, The Dom Post, 17/4/2013

With this, the third concert in Michael Houstoun's year-long journey through the 32 Beethoven Sonatas, we were treated to three sonatas that rarely feature in piano recitals, and the great finger-twisting sonata from 1818 - the 'Hammerklavier' (B flat, Op.106)...

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Lack of tuning mars sublime act

Beethoven ReCycle Programme Two
Ilott Theatre, Wellington, 14 April, 2013
Reviewed by John Button, The DomPost, 16/4/2013

With this, the second concert in Michael Houstoun's epic traversal of the Beethoven Sonatas, we are almost a third of the way there. And building on the fascination of the first concert, we had confirmation that Houstoun is, these days, an even more complete artist than he was at the time of his first journey 20 years ago...

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Houstoun dazzles with Beethoven's sonatas

Beethoven ReCycle Programme One
Ilott Theatre, Wellington, 12 April, 2013
Reviewed by John Button, DomPost, 15/4/2013

It was inevitable, 20 years on since Michael Houstoun's first journey through all 32 Beethoven sonatas, that things would be different - and they are.  The overall vision is the same, but in a myriad ways each of the five sonatas that launched the 2013 journey revealed a more mature, technically more flexible, artist...

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Houstoun displays insight and crisp technique

Beethoven ReCycle Programmes 1, 2 and 3
The Grange Theatre, Christchurch, 4,5,6 April, 2013
Reviewer: David Sell,  The Press, 12/4/2013

One of many advantages of hearing so many Beethoven sonatas in a short space of time is to be reminded of how Beethoven took a simple musical form seemingly perfected by his great predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, and in twenty seven years and thirty two works transformed it into a form of infinite musical and personal possibilities.
In this first series, Michael Houstoun played fourteen of them, ranging from the Opus 10 group of 1795-7, to the massive Opus 106, “Hammerklavier” of 1819...

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Stamina delivers complex sonata

Beethoven Sonatas Programme Three
Municipal Theatre, Napier, Sunday 7 April 2013
Reviewed by Peter Williams, Hawkes Bay Today, 9/4/2013

This third programme of seven was built around the longest sonata in the set, the so-called Hammerklavier No.26 (sic) in B flat, Op.106. Dedicated to the Grand Duke Rudolph, one of the many generous aristocratic patrons who Beethoven cultivated and on whom he depended for his livelihood, it is one of the most remarkable compositions for the keyboard, a sonata on the grandest scale lasting around 50 minutes in playing time...

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Stellar performance where intricate detail shone through

Beethoven Sonatas Programme Two
Municipal Theatre, Napier, Sunday March 24 2013
Reviewed by Peter Williams, Hawkes Bay Today, 26/3/2013

Inevitably in a set of sonatas there are particular compositions which stand out for the unique quality of the writing. This factor has been the catalyst for the arrangements of the sonatas within each of the seven recitals encompassing the whole of the 32 Beethoven sonatas which Michael Houstoun is presenting this year in this ReCycle series...

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Glittering performance

Beethoven Sonatas Programme One
Municipal Theatre, Napier, Sunday March 10 2013
Reviewed by Peter Williams, Hawkes Bay Today 13/3/2013

Many in the audience at this concert will remember Michael Houstoun's playing of the Beethoven Series 20 years ago and will have been keenly anticipating these ReCycle performances. They will surely not have been disappointed in what they heard in this concert...

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A polished performance by an outstanding pianist

Diabelli Variations, Ilott Theatre, 20 October, 2012
Reviewer: John Button
The Dominion Post, 22 October, 2012

On the day of Michael Houstoun's 60th birthday, we heard an absolutely magisterial performance of Beethoven's set of variations on the somewhat ordinary theme by the publisher Anton Diabelli...

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Esteemed friend and colleague, Rae de Lisle, is Head of Piano at the University of Auckland School of Music. As she says, "we make our students write a review of one concert" (great idea). Student Cindy Xia chose a performance I gave to the piano class of Bach's 'Goldberg' variations. Here is her review.

It is not everyday that you can hear a live performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations for the very first time, and it's not everyday that you hear it up close by a world class pianist...

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The Goldberg standard

Christopher's Concerts, St Michael and All Angels, Christchurch, 10 April 2012
Reviewer: Ian Dando
The Listener, 28 April-4 May 2012

Michael Houstoun gives an impressive first performance of one of keyboard music's greatest sets of variations.

Consigned to oblivion for 150 years, JS Bach's Goldberg Variations is a popular work these days. Whether you prefer piano or the original two-manual harpsichord for a 75-minute work depends on your taste. I nail my colours to the mast in agreeing with pianist András Schiff's pragmatism: "Hands on heart, can you listen to the harpsichord that long?" No, especially when sitting on very hard church pews, which is the fate of Christchurchians these days, with nearly all our standard concert venues reduced to rubble.
Promoter Christopher Marshall, who has never allowed quakes to lower his high standards of fare, shifted his Bösendorfer grand piano to the hospitable St Michael & All Angels...

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Thanks be to saints, angels for Houstoun

Christopher's Concerts, St Michael and All Angels, Christchurch, 10 April 2012
Reviewer: Timothy Jones
The Press, 12 April 2012

Let us thank St Michael and all those angels for Chris Marshall, whose concert series continues to bring such delights to our city.
Michael Houstoun needs no introduction and, as so often in the past, he could be relied on to produce a programme of real substance...

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Artists' liaisons make for evocative viewing

Rita and Douglas, Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, 22-26 November 2011
Reviewer: Paul Simei-Barton
New Zealand Herald, 24 November 2011

'It is difficult to imagine a better way to appreciate the art of Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn than this celebratory tribute in which a sharp dramatisation of their quarrelsome relationship is counterpoised with Michael Houstoun's exquisite renditions of Lilburn's piano works while a luminous display of Angus' paintings appears as an enormous projection.

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Great playing but conductor holds Brahms in check

NZSO Brahmissimo! series, October 12-15, Wellington
Reviewer: John Button
DomPost 17 October 2011 (extract)

'There might not have been full halls for this epic series of Brahms concerts but those who came greeted everything with enormous enthusiasm...'

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Houstoun and Watkins honour Maurice Till

Duet recital, Christchurch Arts Festival, 28 August 2011
Reviewer: David Sell
The Press, 29 August 2011

'Everything was right for this event, except for those who couldn't get in. A sold-out concert of duets played on the late Maurice Till's piano by two of his most renowned students in a venue of character and buzz had to be a great occasion.

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Light shone on artists' strange alliance

'Rita and Douglas', Christchurch Arts Festival, 20 August 2011
Reviewer: Warren Feeney
The Press, 22 August 2011

'A love affair between two of New Zealand's best-known artists is a subject too good for New Zealand theatre to ignore...

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Colourful tapestry with many depths

'Rita and Douglas', Taranaki International Arts Festival, 12/13 August 2011
Reviewer: Jo Hills
Taranaki Daily News, 13 August 2011

'Music, visual art and theatre are skilfully interwoven and balanced in 'Rita and Douglas'.
This show opened last night at the Theatre Royal to a sell-out crowd. The 80-minute performance tells of the brief love affair New Zealand artist Rita Angus had with musician Douglas Lilburn in the early 1940s...

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Work of great intensity reflects city's fight against adversity

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Christchurch, 11 August 2011
Reviewer: David Sell
The Press, 13 August 2011

'The scale and intensity of the 900-day siege of Leningrad from June 1941 was the inspiration for Shostakovich's great seventh symphony, and for the title of this concert. Perhaps there was an affinity with the human spirit breaking through adversity that brought a capacity audience and a standing ovation, rarely seen in this city...

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Leningrad tour exquisitely executed

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Auckland, 6 August 2011
Reviewer: William Dart
The New Zealand Herald, 8 August 2011

'The New Zealand Symphony Orchestra's Leningrad tour came with an eye-catching poster; conductor Vasily Petrenko, with just a hint of the Nigel Kennedy enfant terrible, set in a circle of jagged constructivist beams.
On the podium, the lithe, handsome Petrenko was the perfect partner for a magisterial Michael Houstoun in Rachmaninov's Fourth Piano Concerto...

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From Russia with understanding

New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Wellington, 5 August 2011
Reviewer: John Button
The Dominion Post, 8 August 2011

'Surely no musical work has had a history quite like that of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony "Leningrad". For most casual observers, since it first made its appearance during the siege of Leningrad in 1942, it has symbolised the heroic struggle of those who suffered; an act of creation by a composer living through the horrors...

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Rita and Douglas

Festival of Colour, April 12-17, 2011
Reviewer: Helen Watson White
Listener, May 7, 2011

'...Rita and Douglas is a duet of a most unusual kind...

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Magic handful of letters and piano

Rita and Douglas, Lake Wanaka Centre, April 16
Jazzing It Up, Lake Wanaka Centre, April 17
Reviewer: Nigel Zega
Otago Daily Times, Monday 18 April

Rita and Douglas is a poignant tribute to two of New Zealand's cultural icons.
Actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand, pianist Michael Houstoun and writer Dave Armstrong have excelled themselves in creating riveting drama with little more than a handful of letters and a piano...

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Houston's (sic) virtuosity mesmerises at St Paul's

Lunchtime recital at Otago Festival of the Arts
Reviewer: Nigel Benson
Otago Daily Times, 14 October, 2010

It would be fair to say I am probably not pianist Michael Houstoun's biggest fan. During an interview with Houstoun at St Paul's Cathedral a couple of years ago I played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the grand piano...

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Schumann and Chopin birthday treats

Recital in the Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber
Reviewer: William Dart
The New Zealand Herald, 6 September 2010

Michael Houstoun had described his Friday evening recital as a bicentenary celebration of Schumann and Chopin, but the first sounds we heard were Bach, whose celebrated C major Prelude, beautifully understated, surreptitiously segued into Schumann's Arabeske.

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Michael Houstoun at Paekakariki Memorial Hall

Reviewer: Lindis Taylor
Paekakariki Xpressed, 20 August 2010

Michael Houstoun is one of New Zealand's most popular - as well as one of our best - pianists. He gives generously of his talent, playing for small communities as well as in the major concert halls...

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A flourish of eccentricity pays off for Taddei

Vector Wellington Orchestra conducted by Marc Taddei
Reviewer: John Button
The Dominion Post, 26 July 2010 (extract)

.....the concert was, partly thanks to the unusual programming, a fresh, unhackneyed affair, distinguished for the most part by excellent playing. The Egmont Overture got things off to a fiery start, followed by a most eloquent performance of Schumann's Piano Concerto. This is not an easy work to bring off, but Michael Houstoun provided an ideal mix of bravura and lyricism, allied to an easy clarity, that caught Schumann's elusive world to a tee. The orchestra gave him fine support, with the woodwind showing more character than is often the case.


Touring with violinist Josef Spacek

Some review extracts from the 17-concert tour with MHIVC winner Josef Spacek

"The programme - one of two he offers on this tour - was a stimulating package that made as many musical demands as technical, and it revealed a player of great musical maturity. It helped, particularly in Beethoven's Sonata for Piano and Violin in C minor, Op.30 No.2, that Spacek had as a partner Michael Houstoun, a pianist of great experience and distinction. Together they made this sonata very special." John Button, The Dominion Post

"From the crisp opening unison of Mozart's Sonata for violin and piano (sic) an exquisite partnership between Spacek and Houstoun was obvious. They shared the limelight beautifully especially in the variations movement. This was utterly refined playing, yet full of life's joys." Allan Purdy, Taranaki daily News

"After interval, Prokofiev's F minor sonata was magnificent. It is no accident that David Oistrakh chose to play the work's two Andantes at the composer's funeral. Both slow movements revealed Spacek and Houstoun playing with a special sympathy and sense of spiritual communion. Their teamwork through the vociferous dissonances of the second movement and the catch-me-if-you-can Finale was awe-inspiring." William Dart, New Zealand Herald

"Josef Spacek is a phenomenally gifted violinist...the command of every expressive nuance and of the complete gamut of the most complex string techniques throughout the instrument's entire pitch range had the audience captivated. Michael Houstoun matched the violinist all the way, with the ear drawn time and again to the balance and poise of the piano part." Peter Williams, Hawkes Bay Today

(Comment:  All the reviews from this great tour were in the same vein. There was only the fullest praise for Josef who played brilliantly every night. Bravissimo Josef!  MH)


A higher revelation

Michael Houstoun Performs Beethoven: the last three piano sonatas (DVD)
Reviewer: Ian Dando
The Listener, 3 July 2010

Outstanding Beethoven all round. The special attraction is the rare spiritual dimension in Houstoun's playing of the serene finales in Op.109, 110 and 111. It's as though Beethoven were no longer of this planet when he wrote them. In the 40-minute interview module, former Listener editor Terry Snow asks broadly penetrating questions that evoke inspired answers from Houstoun. "Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy", claimed Beethoven. I sense Beethoven, Houstoun and Snow are on one spiritual wavelength. That's exactly what makes this DVD compelling.


See earlier reviews

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