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.
The performance was preceded by a short film in which Houstoun revealed his first Beethoven epiphany and gave a refreshingly simple explanation of his approach to Beethoven. But simple as his explanation was, it allowed a world of complexity in his execution of the music; one that embodied his attitude to the way the piano itself is played, and the central thrust of Beethoven's music at large.
Since making a remarkable recovery to the focal dystonia that affected his right hand, Houstoun has become a tonally more rounded player, and there were myriad examples of this in his marvellously concentrated journey through Beethoven's 33 variations.
In few performances have I been struck so forcefully just how much this great set is a satire on its theme. The humour that abounds throughout was never overplayed, but handled within a taut gruffness that retained a strength that with too much indulgence can be seriously dissipated.
The pedalling, very judicious, allowed the dramatic use of the left hand to be omnipresent, and gave an almost X-ray clarity to the piano writing. Thus the humorous silences in Variation 13, and the contrasts in both Variation 21 and Variation 22 - from Mozart's Don Giovanni - and the 'banging and scampering' of Variation 23 were drawn with enormous rhythmic bite. But each and every variation was enlightened by staggering pianism and a lifetime's understanding. So, not surprisingly, it was greeted by great enthusiasm by the audience - an audience already informed that next year, Houstoun embarks, once again, on a concert journey through all 32 of the Beethoven Sonatas. I can't wait.