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.
First, Houstoun is older and more experienced, and, second, he has come through the extraordinary recovery from focal dystonia in his right hand.
In all five sonatas there was a freedom, even a small touch of rubato, that was previously not part of his playing. Yet the single-minded strength has not been sacrificed, nor has the uncanny accuracy and clarity of his playing diminished.
There is, in short, a new element of fantasy in the playing, and, in the Waldstein (No.21 in C, Op.53) a willingness to take risks. Here the opening tempo was a touch quicker than previously, the slow movement more rapt, and the final prestissimo giddyingly headlong.
This was dazzling playing, but the earlier sonatas were scarcely less impressive, with each displaying a new freshness - even simplicity - which was completely disarming. But Houstoun is human, and I wondered if, on this evening, the variations in the first movement of the A flat sonata (No.12, Op.26) went quite as he intended.
A small matter, and it could not disguise the feeling I had that the pianist's recent performances of the Diabelli Variations might just have had some influence on how he sees the sonatas. Time will tell - roll on Concerts Two and Three.