For the last and final concert of Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven reCYCLE in Auckland , local Concert Manager Ros Giffney sums up the year-long journey that was full of magical and immersive musical experiences…

Ros Giffney, Auckland Concert Manager for Chamber Music New Zealand

Ros Giffney, Auckland Concert Manager for Chamber Music New Zealand

When I knew that I had the privilege of blogging the final concert of the series I thought hard about what might be a fitting conclusion to such an amazing and memorable musical journey.

In Auckland, through the generosity of CMNZ offering special ‘student passes’ to attend all 7 concerts, a number of University of Auckland performance piano students heard all 32 sonatas.

It seemed appropriate to look forward.  I was curious to know what the year’s experience had taught them.  What would these students, our aspiring pianists of the next 20 years, take forward from the concerts into their playing? I asked them for a couple of sentences on how hearing any part of the weekend might have changed or influenced what they will do in the future.

The replies were insightful, honest and a clear indication that this extraordinary journey through Beethoven’s sonatas has not, in fact, ended.  The effects of Michael’s performance will continue on through the next generation.

The students wrote:

  • A sense that the notes fall exactly in the right place – they fall just when it feels they should to make musical sense.  It sounds a bit pretentious but it’s almost as though the timing is ordained. I’m not sure of how that is achieved – I suspect through an absolute knowledge of how he wants the music to sound and an extraordinary technical control.  How he makes it seem effortless I don’t know but I am going to strive to achieve it now.
  • I have always deeply respected Michael’s immaculate stage etiquette and his mastery of playing – so humble and subtle yet so empowered at the same time. It’s always a huge pleasure to be in his musical company. He is definitely a model to which I aspire to in both performance and as a person.
  • There is an extraordinary sense of stillness in Michael’s playing.  His head, his body, his legs all blend to be one with the piano.  When I compare how he plays with pianists who rock to and fro, flourish their arms in the air, nod their heads I realise how all those extraneous movements distract from the flow of the music and waste energy that should be directed into the music.  With Michael you feel the music flows from his head conceptually through to the piano – it’s not ‘played’ it’s ‘created’ through him with a scarcity of movement yet still power.
  • Being able to watch Beethoven’s sonatas being played in such an extraordinary manner was a privilege. If I get to play them in the future, I hope to take on board many things from your performance especially the accuracy that you managed with under such concert conditions.
  • The one thing that I will be taking from the Beethoven reCycle 3 is that I can probably memorise much more music that I have thought I can. To hear from Euan Murdoch that the 32 sonatas comprise 16 hours of memorised music and this weekend Michael played over 5 ½ hours of Sonatas makes me realise that I have been putting self imposed limits on my ability to memorise.  If I remember a concert programme of two hours I feel I’ve done well and don’t try to stretch myself further.  Now I will.
  • What did hearing Michael play make me feel as a student pianist – essentially terrified!  It so vividly brought home the chasm between what I can do and what I should be doing.  I’m scared that, even with the hours and hours of practice I see stretching before me over the next decade, I won’t ever come close to the level of his playing.
  • I am very inspired by your insightful interpretations of Beethoven’s sonatas, which made feel closer to Beethoven than ever. I now have more ideas about how to work on Beethoven’s sonatas, especially in areas like sound, voicing, rhythm and emotional depth, which I have learnt from hearing you play. Thank you for an inspiring, emotional and educational experience.’
  • The sound he produces really is – no other word for it – magical. The clarity of each note is unparalleled, and his musical decisions seem to reflect Beethoven’s intentions most truthfully. Every time I play a Beethoven sonata now, I think back to Michael’s concerts. Perfection is not something that can be achieved in music, but his playing really is very close indeed.
  • The lesson I think strikes me most is the way Mr Houstoun seems to have known exactly where each piece off each piece of music is going.  Each whole Sonata has been carefully placed in the year’s programme.  Then the direction and flow of each movement within that sonata.  From there each phrase and down to each note seems to have a clear role in forming the whole.
  • At least, if I work hard, there is a hope that I’ll still have a job in 40 years time!

In conclusion I also asked two of New Zealand’s most respected piano teachers what they hoped students would gain from the experience.

Rae at the post-concert celebration with Michael Housount and guests.

Rae at the post-concert celebration with Michael Housount and guests.

Rae de Lisle:

What a privilege to have been at all but one of both series of Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven concerts. The first series was an extraordinary achievement and is a treasured memory.  Twenty years on Michael plays with new sonority and a depth of understanding that further reveals Beethoven’s joy, suffering, turmoil and peace. Michael never gets in the way of the music but reaches deep into the score, unhindered by the recordings of others. One is no longer aware of pianist and piano but of pure music, of Beethoven. My hope for the many young aspiring pianists who have attended the series is that they will take this sincerity of approach into their music making, in a lifelong exploration of music. Thank you Chamber Music New Zealand for enabling us to share in this wonderful experience.

Bryan Sayer:

Amongst the many remarkable qualities in Michael’s performances of Beethoven Sonatas two stand out for me as being fundamental – an absolute integrity of preparation combined with an absolute focus of concentration in performance. A lesson in life itself!

Chamber Music New Zealand CE, Euan Murdoch toasts to Michael alongside audience members after the final Auckland Beethoven reCYCLE concert

Chamber Music New Zealand CE, Euan Murdoch (centre) toasts to Michael alongside audience members after the final Auckland Beethoven reCYCLE concert

Thank you Michael, you’ve made 2013 very special.

– Ros, 5.11.2013


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