Houstoun displays insight and crisp technique
Beethoven ReCycle Programmes 1, 2 and 3
The Grange Theatre, Christchurch, 4,5,6 April, 2013
Reviewer: David Sell, The Press, 12/4/2013
One of many advantages of hearing so many Beethoven sonatas in a short space of time is to be reminded of how Beethoven took a simple musical form seemingly perfected by his great predecessors, Haydn and Mozart, and in twenty seven years and thirty two works transformed it into a form of infinite musical and personal possibilities.
In this first series, Michael Houstoun played fourteen of them, ranging from the Opus 10 group of 1795-7, to the massive Opus 106, “Hammerklavier” of 1819. He has reserved the earliest Haydnesque, and the last three, complex works for his later series in September and October.
Not that the “Hammerklavier” isn’t complex enough. On its own it is demanding enough for pianist and audience alike. As the great Beethoven exponent, Andras Schiff put it, “It is a work that everybody respects and reveres but very few people love.”
Houstoun chose to play it at the end of his third programme, for which, unlike the first two, he exercised the prudence of having the scores on hand.
At the time of the “Hammerklavier” Beethoven was still in touch with the real world despite his by now total deafness. His rich, if agonised inner world was reaching out and making ready contact. Houstoun conveyed this with his superb insight that has characterised this whole series.
I was often aware of the focus of audience attention. It was Houstoun’s picture on the programme cover, and of course the spotlight was on him on stage. But for Houstoun himself it was a different matter. Beethoven was at the centre. I felt that I was listening in rather than being played to. I liked this, especially in the middle period sonatas in which Beethoven’s self-confidence was high.
One of the many things I like about Houstoun’s playing is his crisp and precise technique. This allows the music to reveal Beethoven, rather than Houstoun. At the same time his natural reticence leads to performances that are introspective. Which is why the mysteries of the “Hammerklavier” are still mysterious.
While the third concert ended with one of Beethoven’s most profound questions, the rest of the series was just as rich. There is no typical Beethoven sonata.
In the second programme the so-called “Tempest” sonata, Opus 31 No. 2 was the most powerful. I know the work well, but still found myself waiting expectantly for the unexpected, and being suitably rewarded. It was so different from the cute little Opus 49 No. 1 that opened the second programme with few musical expectations, but plenty of fun.
As for Michael Houstoun’s playing, this is the second time he has played the complete Beethoven sonatas. Many of us, not least Houstoun himself, still remember his seven Great Hall concerts in June 1995.
In the well-compiled programme of Chamber Music New Zealand, Houstoun observes that “You’re less energetic as you get older and some of that loss of energy is actually a positive, because you learn how to focus it and direct it …”.
His playing is as clear as it ever was. And I still wonder at his stamina, now with the addition of eighteen more years of wisdom and insight.