BEETHOVEN CONCERT 10 of 40: He played the note – twwwaaannng! – and said I can’t go on

The very first BEETHOVEN reCYCLE concert in Auckland last night (19 April) proved to be a dramatic one, ending on a rather unexpected note. CMNZ Artist Development Manager Charlotte Wilson tells the tale…

What an extraordinary thing. I’ve never known this to happen in a concert before. There was a problem with the C, two octaves above middle C; it started to become really apparent in the E flat – Op 27 no 1 – the fantasy-like sonata with the extraordinary variations that Michael plays like a god. (I have never had an experience like his Beethoven sonatas. Everyone is speaking in superlatives but superlatives can’t even do it. They are so wonderful it is almost disturbing.)

Back to last night; the piano tuner was right there, and worked on the piano during the interval. What could he do though? This was a manufacturing problem, not a tuning problem. I was talking to them both about it backstage and Michael himself was remarkably philosophical. Even joking about it! “Just one of those extra challenges that pianists have to face from time to time.” (And that was the remarkable thing, that he carried on perfectly regardless – even though he knew this note was bung. You can imagine, it would be easy to get shy of a note that you knew was going to be off. Not with Michael.)

Charlotte Wilson (CMNZ) with Michael Houstoun after a concert in 2012.

Charlotte Wilson (CMNZ) with Michael Houstoun after a concert in 2012.
Photography by Robert Catto.

Anyway, we could but hope that it was fixed, and after the interval came the A flat – Op 26 – the one that just drops off the edge of the world. But, oh dear! There was the C, still. And coming up was the Waldstein, the masterpiece of the concert, in exactly the key that uses the C about 3,000 times. I thought Michael would stop then and there. Amazingly, he still gave us the first movement. It was the weirdest thing I’ve ever heard. Because virtuosity is critical to the Waldstein – those extraordinary runs, leaps, chords – but so is the harmony; and the harmony had this twang like an exposed nerve. Like a broken tooth. Clearly it was going to be impossible to go on.

After the first movement, Michael stood up, and simply spoke to the audience. He played the note – twwwaaannng! – explained what was wrong, and said I can’t go on. And he was absolutely right. It would actually have been painful to listen to; he would not have been doing justice to Beethoven, or to us the audience, or to himself. You can imagine the disappointment. Bad enough for us – imagine what it was like for him.

I went on briefly and spoke on behalf of CMNZ. He came back on for applause; it was tumultuous. And being the person that he is, at the end of concert II in Auckland he has offered to play those last two movements that we missed. I’ve been calling Beethoven “the most moving, most powerful, most human of composers”. Michael Houstoun is the most generous of pianists.

– Charlotte, 20.04.13


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