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.
Houstoun is arguably the finest concert pianist this country has ever produced and without a doubt one of the foremost international interpreters of Beethoven piano works alive today. Here in New Zealand he has earned, deservedly, respect that at times approaches adulation, as was evidenced by the sustained standing ovation accorded him at the close of his 26 June recital in the Regent.
In his programme reflections, Houstoun notes, "Music is a whole different world for me than it was 20 years ago. When you're young it is easy to let perfection get in the way of the music. What is important to me now is sincerity, and not getting in the way of the music. I'm a more natural musician than I was before. I'll be even less inclined to try to impose my own ideas."
If I read him correctly, I believe Houstoun is saying that in order to create truly great art, the intellect must be the servant, not the master, the ego must abdicate in favour of the spirit. Of all art forms, music is the most profoundly relational. The partnership between composer and the Infinite and composer and performer, when properly understood and given expression, has the power to ennoble humanity and bring accord to the human family in a way no other creative endeavour can.
Great art is about beauty and truth and love. It both challenges and celebrates what it means to be human, individually, as community, and in terms of the cosmos of which we are an integral part. We are, as it were, the music we make. I believe Beethoven understood this and so, for me, any interpretation of his work should embrace and express that understanding.
What, you ask, has this to do with a review of Houstoun's Palmerston North recital? Well, everything in fact.
I don't feel inclined to critique the technical aspects of Houstoun's playing. I have no particular expertise for that, but more importantly I think an attempt to do so would misrepresent what he himself is now trying to achieve as an artist. When it comes to his playing of the Beethoven masterworks, of course he is technically brilliant. That goes without saying, so trotting out well-worn clichés would serve no useful purpose.
No, I am taking my cue from Houstoun's own programme reflections - or at least my reading of them. Achieving technical perfection is one thing. The ability to ensoul the music is another, even though both are of course interrelated.
As my wife and I, along with the rest of the audience, thrilled to this magnificent pianist's 2013 performance of the Appassionata, I was struck by one simple realisation: I am in the presence of artistic greatness. Somehow and perhaps without realising it as such, Michael Houstoun has given himself permission to be in tune with the Infinite.
That is all I can say - and perhaps, now, all that can be said of this heroic New Zealand musician. We are the music he makes. All of us.