BEETHOVEN RECYCLE: HOUSTOUN STEEPED IN EMOTION
THURSDAY, 24 OCTOBER 2013
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.
The second piece was the well -known Sonata in C Sharp Minor, misnamed the Moonlight Sonata. Houstoun believes that, far from being a Romantic composition, it was originally improvised at a funeral and would be better named the Death Sonata. He certainly communicated its tragic meaning.
The familiar opening of the adagio was so gently underplayed, sad beyond words, evoking loneliness and isolation. The last movement, however, was played at a terrifying speed, as if Beethoven were racing for his life from a menacing foe.
After the interval, we were given a consoling Pastoral Sonata No 15 in D Op 28, written in the same year, 1801. This began very lyrically, with sparing use of the pedal. A feeling of whimsical melancholy soon broke out into flurries of impatience and irritation as Beethoven tried to cheer himself up. I so enjoyed this display of Beethoven's inner frustrations.
But the most unforgettable sonata of the evening was Sonata No 31 in A Flat Op 110, composed in 1821, when Beethoven was completely deaf and faced with an acrimonious dispute over the guardianship of his nephew. He used his music to hold himself together and transcend all that suffering.
The slow movement takes Beethoven to the brink, and Houstoun had to dig deep within himself. The music is frighteningly emotional but remains compelling, though heartbreaking, throughout. This sonata doesn't end. It evolves into eternity, and its performance is an expression of Houstoun's life force, affirming that "the solution to man's problems lies within himself '.
The audience recalled Houstoun three times to the stage with dense applause. With a silent bow, he graciously retired. Will he be able to perform all of Beethoven's sonatas when he is 80?