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. Being made of wood, it is one of the city's few surviving churches. Our quakes eat brick, concrete and stone edifices for breakfast. So much for real estate agents' palaver about "permanent materials".
But back to Bach - and this concert was well attended, by the way. Michael Houstoun, now in his 60th year, came late to the Goldberg and instantly fell in love with its nine progressive canons, which he has called "a product of Bach's superbrain". Houstoun's clear playing of these was his strongest point. Speed kills, but never Houstoun. His finger clarity at high speed was astonishing in such virtuosic moments as the trilling variation No.28 and No.14's virtuosic toccata with its profusion of hand crossing to avoid traffic jams and finger muddles.
In the various dance types, such as No.7's gigue, the robust passepied of No.4, the stately sarabande of the opening aria and his angular rendition of the French Overture in No.16, he hit the stylistic truth of each. Ditto his clean ornamentation of mordents and trills.
Houstoun chose to observe all repeats. In the reflective ones, he gained expressive intensity through muting, most effectively in the "black pearl" (No.25), the emotive peak of all Bach's keyboard compositions.
His handling of the intimate muting of the aria repeated at the end also gave a warm and serene sense of homecoming after such a profoundly intellectual journey through 30 variations.
Houstoun's maiden voyage into one of music literature's deepest keyboard landmarks was impressive, thanks to his intense sense of involvement. If, like the eccentric Glenn Gould's Goldberg, Houstoun can intensify its reflective sections with phrase shaping and nuancing to heighten the sorrow of the lamenting No.15, as one of several examples, he could enrich the work's humanity and transmogrify his later Goldberg love-affairs into world-beaters.
The two greatest keyboard variation oeuvres - Beethoven's Diabelli and Bach's Goldberg - are so multi-dimensional they call out for perpetual revisiting anyway.
Houstoun's performance of Jenny McLeod's Six Tone Clock Pieces (2010-11), for all his dedication to New Zealand composers and her vivacious pointillist colours, was surplus to needs. The Goldberg is a huge meal in itself. All four previous Goldbergs I've heard live have displayed it as a proud standalone.