BEETHOVEN CONCERT 36 OF 40: All the Beethovian drama anyone could have wanted

Hamilton’s final Beethoven reCYCLE concert with Michael Houstoun sees the a return blogger! University of Waikato piano student, Dolan Cox finishes up for the series with his insight into the Beethovian experience…


Dolan Cox (3rd from the right) with fellow Hamilton piano students and Michael Houstoun himself.

The weather outside the Gallagher Academy was unfriendly on Tuesday night but hundreds packed into the concert chamber to hear Michael Houstoun anyway.  With the warmth of a large audience and the yellow glow of the lights overhead, Houstoun looked completely at ease on stage. With so much experience, the on stage piano seat must feel like home. This ease and security translated to Houstoun’s technical execution of the programme. And, far out, what a monster of a programme it was. Beginning with Beethoven’s firecracker first sonata, Op.2 No.1, and finishing with his transcendental last, Op.111, the recital introduced us to Beethoven’s many personalities and placed massive demands (technical, mental and artistic) on the performer.

It was neither the first nor the last work that I will remember though (not to take anything away from the world-class performances of these pieces that Houstoun delivered). The three inner sonatas grabbed my attention and imagination with force, with the Sonata in G, Op.79 first up. More sonatina than sonata, this light-hearted and playful work showcased Houstoun’s transparent tone and attention to detail. The phrasing had clearly been thought out and worked at but felt natural and instinctual as if the music could only ever have flowed one way. This is probably because of the meticulous way in which Houstoun must have prepared the sonatas but more so because of his apparent aim to get Michael out of the way and bring Beethoven to the forefront. Well, this is what I hear in the way Houstoun plays anyway.

The next two sonatas on the programme were Op.81a ‘Les Adieux’ and Op.90 in E minor. Two of my personal favourites, Houstoun gave all of the Beethovian drama and passion anyone could have wanted from these pieces. Michael’s pacing and choice of tempi were always spot on, making the juxtaposition of Beethoven’s fury and intimacy seamless. During these works, Houstoun’s structural genius really struck me. Actually, as a structuralist I’d say that he is unrivalled by any other Kiwi musician. Listening to his Beethoven sonatas is a bit like viewing a landscape or portrait from afar. I didn’t notice the colours or brushstrokes of the works so much as the masterpiece as a whole. This goes back to what I think is Houstoun’s goal of showcasing Beethoven’s message. In this way Michael’s performances don’t isolate audience members with confronting personal interpretations. They are much more inclusive, and the let art speak for itself.

I’ve heard Michael perform over a dozen of these sonatas as well as the formidable Diabelli variations in the last 12 months and I’m not bored yet. Far from it. Houstoun’s Beethoven lets the music’s voice be heard so clearly – a trait all musicians should aspire to in their performances. I can’t wait to hear what he’s going to offer us next.

– Dolan, 06.11.2013

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