BEETHOVEN CONCERT 34 OF 40: It has been a rare treat

It was another SOLD OUT house in Auckland for it’s 6th Beethoven reCYCLE concert featuring the famous Moonlight sonata. Chamber Music Committee member Michael Weiss was in the crowd to witness another wonderful Michael Houstoun performance…


Musician, Michael Weiss.

Musician, Michael Weiss.

It has been a rare treat – a first for me – to witness all thirty-two of Beethoven’s piano sonatas being performed over the course of a single year. And furthermore undertaken all by a single interpreter, taking us on his own tour of these fascinating and enchanting pieces. The final three concerts, which I attended in the Auckland Concert Chamber were for me at once a summary of the cycle and the jewel in its crown. I cannot say whether that was because of the engrossing allure of Beethoven’s final three sonatas, the clever programming that managed to show each evening where the composer had started and where he ended up, or because I found myself even more absorbed by Michael Houstoun’s playing than I had before. If it really were the latter, I wouldn’t say that it was because he somehow played better, for he played each concert equally well, but because along with deepening my understanding of Beethoven’s sonatas, this year’s reCYCLE has also deepened my understanding of Houstoun’s art.

There are countless reasons to admire his Beethoven, but one in particular commanded my attention in Programme Six, on Saturday night, and that is the evenness that he can instil in his playing – in voicing chords, in attack, in balancing lines, in runs, in trills, in crescendos and diminuendos, but above all in his conception of phrases, movements, entire sonatas. Of course, he will give as much mercurial whimsy as he wants (we heard this in the short phrases of Op. 2, No. 2 in Programme Five), but never more than is called for. The best performances of Beethoven are full of tension, especially the tension of not increasing or decreasing in speed or dynamics more than (or sooner than) stipulated in the score, even though it might feel intuitive to do so.

Thus in the Largo of Op. 7, Houstoun played with such precision of tempo, such exactness in releasing notes, such measured pauses, that the movement built up a natural momentum of its own, never halted by indulgences in tempo. Even once the left hand began to move with semiquavers, the slow crotchet pulse from the start was still vivid. The Andante of the ‘Pastoral’ sonata, Op. 28, begins with similar semiquaver figuration in the left hand, which again Houstoun performed with a confident delicacy. This enabled the slow cantabile melody at once to sing for itself and to lock in effortlessly with the bass line. Such was the poise of this delivery that after the D major section in the middle of the movement – compact, tidy and restrained – when the opening material returned, I felt as if I had never left it. These are just two small examples of how Houstoun carefully crafts each movement as a whole.

The opening movement of the evening’s signature piece, the “Moonlight” sonata, displayed the same steady even-handedness. Houstoun created a still and almost bleak atmosphere, traversing sonorities both dark and light in a relentless forward progression, relieved every now and then by glimmers of life in the slightest relaxing of phrase ends. Nowhere, however, was his well thought-out conception of larger shapes more in evidence on Saturday than in his rendition of the A-Flat major sonata, Op. 110. There is a lot for the listener to take in in this piece, especially in the complex finale, but Houstoun’s considered performance showed us the thread that pulls together the elements of the composition. This was not only in compositional construction, for his playing here also traversed an emotional arc that left me and others too, it seemed, quite drained by the end.

Houstoun has consistently put the composer ahead of himself in the 2013 reCYCLE but, paradoxically, that only gives me another reason to find favour with his interpretation. And hearing him over the course of the year has given me the chance to develop my appreciation of his performances and has greatly enriched my experience of the final three concerts and in particular the final three sonatas.

– Michael, 4.11.2013

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