BEETHOVEN CONCERT 27 OF 40: the passion of your life becomes more vivid

It was a packed house in Dunedin on the 17th October, for pianist Michael Houstoun’s last Beethoven reCYCLE concert (and the closing concert in the city’s CMNZ season). Sitting amongst the excited audience was piano student Leo McMenamin…


Pictured above: Piano student, Leo McMenamin

Pictured above: Piano student, Leo McMenamin

Dunedin received the second of its two scheduled Michael Houstoun concerts with due reverence. When repertoire of this sophistication is to be performed by a performer of such high-acclaim, it is unsurprising that the environment became so animated before the concert began. It was obvious that people had been looking forward to this date for a long time now (at least as long as Michael’s earlier performance in August.)

While these works were already so deeply embalmed in our hearts – and I am sure that most who were attending that concert held a special place for some particular recording of Sonata No. 2, 8, 18 and 30 – it was something peculiar and special to hear them come to life in such an intimate concert setting. It is not often that I ponder the difficulties involved in playing these constantly innovative sonatas. But during the concert, this was an enormous part of the satisfaction. Suddenly the very act of performing the works became more central, and the reverence was to Michael Houstoun as well as to Beethoven. 

The program was wonderfully balanced. There were two sonatas in each half, and the second was more aurally demanding than the first in both cases. Sonata No. 2 set the scene a willful piece of early Beethoven compositional mastery. This was a sublime opening, which eased the audience into the emotional landscape of the next 2 hours. The piece is very pianistic, allowing Houstoun to display the freedom and exuberance of his pianism. His quality of touch was apparent from the opening and the manner in which he handled passages that ascended the principle length of the piano was thrilling. And the balance between the two hands in the second movement (as throughout of course) was something that I was really struck by. Each voice in the chords was enabled to sing, and the listener could center their attention on any of the chords inner voicings.

Sonata No. 8 ‘Pathetique’ is one of the most widely appreciated of Beethoven’s sonatas. It is works such as the Pathetique that are responsible for the composer’s myth and reputation as a stormy, brooding artist, intent of waking the audience up with bold sforzandi at any given opportunity. In actual fact, as Michael Houstoun himself pointed out in the program notes, there is quite often an underlining optimism in Beethoven’s music, which would do well not to be ignored. The opening section of the sonata was handled masterfully, with an enormous range of dynamics being harnessed by the performer. The tempo of the first movement, following its introduction, was very rapid – more so than I have often heard it being performed. This added to the thrill of the performance in a way one watches with horror as a tight-roper walks between high surfaces.

The highly famous second movement was wonderful in its control and sublimity. This was one of those movements that everybody in the room knew very well, and Michael Houstoun met the high level of expectation convincingly. It felt to be one of the moments in the concert where Houstoun and Beethoven were really indulging the audience with subtle beauty.

The final movement is one that has always fascinated me, and seems to bring a unity to the sonata with its connections to the first movement. This was also set about at a rapid pace, and controlled in a manner that is rare for communities such as Dunedin to be fortunate enough to hear. It was movements such as this that really made the audience grateful for the opportunity to hear these works performed in concert – they are often too difficult for students and amateur community members to perform convincingly.

The interval was important for breaking the audience from their transfixed states on the stalls of the Glenroy Auditorium.

The performance returned with Sonata No. 18, known by many as ‘the hunt’. The reason for this becomes clear after the opening section makes way for a very furtive second subject, causing an almost programmatic experience of listening to sonata. It seems an ideal piece for a new edition of Fantastia, as its passages are so depictive. Michael Houstoun did well to articulate and colour the many contrasting passages in the opening movement. The second movement was so well articulated at the outset that I almost fell off my seat. It seemed that Michael Houstoun had a rich palate of touch to draw on at appropriate occasions. This, to me, belied his deep understanding and experience with these works. The subsequent two movements of the sonata are a little less emotionally weighty, and were useful in preparing the audience for what was to come next.

Sonata No. 30 takes us forward about 20 years from the previous sonata. Consequently, it was stood in strong contrast to the middle period Beethoven of the earlier sonata. The Sonata is immense, and is well regarded for its skillful and efficient crafting of Sonata form principles into a more condensed format. But that says nothing of the profound beauty that one experiences when listening to this work. The opening movement is one of polar opposite themes, which venture the listener into the entire tonal span of the piano. It was the highlight of the concert for me, and I was enamored with Mr. Houstoun’s performance of it.

Overall then I am reminded of that wonderful passage from E.M. Forster’s novel ‘Howards End’ at the beginning of chapter 5, which reads:

It will be generally admitted that Beethoven … is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man.  All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it.  Whether you are like Mrs. Munt, and tap surreptitiously when the tunes come–of course, not so as to disturb the others–; or like Helen, who can see heroes and shipwrecks in the music’s flood; or like Margaret, who can only see the music; or like Tibby, who is profoundly versed in counterpoint, and holds the full score open on his knee; or like their cousin, Fräulein Mosebach, who remembers all the time that Beethoven is “echt Deutsch”; or like Fräulein Mosebach’s young man, who can remember nothing but Fräulein Mosebach: in any case, the passion of your life becomes more vivid, and you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. 

– Leo, 23.10.2013

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