Beethoven reCYCLE: A stellar achievement

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

By Peter Mechen, Middle C

One of the highest accolades a musician can receive is to have his or her name indelibly associated in people's minds with that of a particular composer's music - and more than any other pianist in this part of the world, Michael Houstoun's name has become practically synonymous with Beethoven.

It's not been an association lightly or casually wrought - it's grown and developed over a span of time and through the pianist's Herculean efforts involving preparation and performance of all of the composer's significant keyboard works. Both the passing of time and life-changing events have made their own contribution to the association, so that Houstoun is presently a different musician to what he was twenty years ago, around the time of his first Beethoven voyage through the sonatas. He himself delineates aspects of the change in his musical outlook in the excellent program booklet, an account that makes absorbing reading.

Many concertgoers attending the present series would have been there last time round, and able to remember well the impact of that first cycle, momentous in so many ways. If the present series seems not quite such a "charged" occurrence, it still generates its own storehouse of interest from the point of view of Houstoun's own growth and development as a major artist, and the broadening and deepening of his views about the music.

I found having to choose one of three recitals from Houstoun's first "round" of his Beethoven Re-cycle a costly experience, as there was so much to lose as well as to gain - but I finally plumped for the third programme, which had the mighty "Hammerklavier" as a kind of finale to three earlier (and briefer!) works.

Over the years I've worked hard at NOT becoming a total "Hammerklavier-junkie", though it's sometimes been a near thing - every great performance I hear of the work has the effect of pushing me close to that edge over which the way back to sanity would be a torturous process. This was such a performance, but one with a difference to some of the more "addictive" experiences I've gone through - it was more of a "cleansing" experience here, rather than an immersion in or partaking of something rich and strange.

Until relatively recently I've found Michael Houstoun's playing of Beethoven somewhat enigmatic  -  I would sit and listen to live performances and recordings of various things and admire the playing's obvious mastery, its strength, purpose, clear vision and command of both structure and detail. One of Houstoun's most pronounced qualities - a kind of "greatness", I believe - is the ability to convince the listener of the validity of his approach to any piece of music he plays at the time, however much one might find oneself holding different views in retrospect.

Of course, any musician ought to be able to similarly persuade listeners to accept the "truths" of what he or she plays, but in Houstoun's case the force of his "in-situ" persuasion is quite remarkable. Nevertheless, I remember thinking repeatedly in those days how strange it was that the pianist's playing, despite its obvious qualities, hadn't really ever moved or touched me -  it was music-making I admired, but didn't love.

After Houstoun's debilitating encounter in the year 2000 with, and eventual recovery (2005) from focal dystonia (a process documented clearly and movingly in an article on the pianist's web-site, found at www.michaelhoustoun.co.nz), I began to feel a kind of "thawing-out" in his playing - especially memorable for me were recitals featuring Schumann's Kreisleriana (August 2010) and Schubert's B-flat Sonata D.960 (July 2011), both works getting magnificent, expressive readings. My reviews, to my surprise, were punctuated with many comments referring to the pianist's poetic sensibilities and evocation of free and open spaces - "beautifully and sensitively weighted, equivocally poised between worlds of foreboding and resignation" was some of my purpler prose.

Houstoun mentioned in his account of the FD saga his "rediscovery of a happiness in simply playing the piano" as part of his healing process - and for me that rediscovery is manifest in what sounds to me like a greater warmth and freedom in his playing. I noticed, for example, during the recent Beethoven recital how beautifully differentiated the three first-half sonatas were, each offering very different aspects of the composer's musical personality - the "Hammerklavier" of course, was something else again!

Simply the selection of keys across the three first half works gave the listener interest and pleasure - plunging into a stormy C Minor to begin with, the recital moved to a good-humored G Major for the second work, and a brief though richly-plaintive immersion into F major for the diminutive Op.54 Sonata. At first, from the beginning of Op.10 No.1, with its terse ascending figurations hurling out a challenge to the world, I thought the Ilott Theatre acoustic would prove too dry and dull for the music to properly "speak" - but as the work progressed I realized that the sounds were bringing out both player and instrument beautifully, without need of much help from the hall at all.

Houstoun relished the operatic character of the second movement, energizing the dramatic, baroque-like flourishes that contrasted with the lyrical lines, and bringing out the playful countervoice dancing over the top of things, before the richly beautiful concluding descent. Having sufficiently expressed his ardour, the young virtuoso composer applied his pianistic spurs once again and galloped off and into an incident-packed third movement, rich with variety. The pianist took us adroitly through all of this towards the somewhat Haydnesque harmonic cul-de-sac which brought the journey to a whimsical halt, then laughingly turned us around and pushed us in the right direction to the final cadence.

The opening of Op.14 No.2 had, by contrast, a feline grace, in Houstoun's hands, with the music's contours finely sculptured, but with some easing at the phrase-ends, just as a singer would breathe. The middle section clouded over and giddily whirled us through various agitations to a wonderful release-point nicely held by the pianist before returning to the gentle warmth of the opening - I thought Houstoun's tones positively glowed in places towards the end, with a kind of burnished quality. The andante stepped out with attitude, Houstoun terracing the dynamics finely and without exaggeration - I had never noticed a kind of kinship of utterance between places in this movement and the variation movement of No.30 (Op.109) before hearing this performance.

Regarding the finale, it was "and now for something completely different…." on the composer's part. Houstoun brought out the music's skittishness, in places as much lightly brushing-over as playing the notes - as another pianist once said to me, having just played the work, "It's all slightly mad, isn't it?" - and splendidly delivered Beethoven's gorgeous growl of impulsive drollery right at the end. And from this we were taken to a world of grander, more ceremonial and ritualized fun-and-games, the enigmatic two-movement Sonata No.22 (Op.54).

Comparing this performance with Houstoun's Trust recording of the work, made in 1994, I noted the more open and varied touch throughout the first movement's exuberant octave hammerings. I also felt a stronger sense of narrative throughout - here, the introductory minuet-like dance was beautifully augmented on each of its appearances with grace-notes and other accoutrements, and thus transformed into a wondrously-adorned processional. The pianist allowed it a moment of glory before gracefully delivering a succession of plaintive, fading chords, and letting it all go.

As for the moto perpetuo-like second movement, Houstoun has always played this music superbly, as here. From the beginning there was a finely-controlled but burgeoning excitement, Houstoun bringing out Kreisleriana-like voices from the occasional held notes, and varying the tones and intensities throughout different episodes. I enjoyed the wonderful "lurches" into different ambiences, before the pianist refocused the music's bearings, girded its loins for a final reprise, and made an all-out dash for the finish line, to exhilarating effect.

So - we were now "primed" as it were for that Everest of the pianistic literature - the "Hammerklavier". The music was hurled across the firmament for us at the very start, Houstoun's hands leaping excitingly through voids of time and space. His fingers didn't quite encompass every note cleanly in the subsequent figurations, but the hint of strain suggested a no-holds-barred commitment, and the titanic nature of the effort required to bring those sounds into being for us. The energies generated and subsequently released throughout the whole movement in places suggested to me dancing star-clusters, forming and breaking apart, the pianist's strength and vision of the whole keeping the ebb and flow of things together. The  fugal sequence had both vigour and weight, suggesting a human mind attempting to come to grips with something elemental and for the ages. A tremendous achievement.

The scherzo was kept "tight", and the dynamics contained, though circumspection was thrown aside as the madly scampering trio section brilliantly touched off the volcanic climax, the sounds skyrocketting upwards and all over in a brilliant display of surging pianistic exuberance. A few obsessively-repeated chords and a throwaway ending, and we were suddenly in another world of vast spaces and far-flung thoughts, as the slow movement was begun.

When reviewing Houstoun's recording of this work, I felt that the pianist demonstrated that he was a skilled, committed and thoughtful architect and builder, from the opening notes of this movement shaping the music into a magnificent structure, exquisitely proportioned and finely detailed in all of its parts. His grasp of the different dimensions suggested by the music made for profound contrasts of space, light, meaning and feeling which I felt readily opened themselves to the listener. It was a telling journey through these different vistas, with seemingly endless explorations in and around the music's structures, upwards and outwards, though I didn't ever feel I was invited or encouraged by the playing to stop and experience the depths of the stillness at the heart of it all.

Seventeen years on I felt Houstoun's approach to this music had moved closer to this stillness, though he seemed as disinclined to take that last step into the vortex of allowing the music to direct him, of surrendering to the ineffable and feeling the full depth of the silences between some of those notes. Rather, the music was, I thought, kept on the continuum of a living pulse, with everything admirably weighted and sensitively detailed. Beethoven's use of a slow waltz-rhythm throughout suggested in its way a kind of life-dance, whose ebb and flow underwent profound transformation, and Houstoun's invitation to us to share in that dance pared our existence to the music's essentials for its duration. And though this music was supposed to represent the well of the world's sorrow, here on the opposite side of its tragic aspect was an antithesis, a kind of cleansing of the spirit and a refreshing of the indomitable will. It was on this plane that I thought the pianist's achievement in this music was truly memorable.

On a prosaically functional level, a truly transcendental performance of the slow movement can leave one in a kind of emotion-suffused daze, creating the unforgivable solecism of wanting to turn the work into a kind of "Unfinished Sonata" by breaking off one's listening at that point. Perhaps Beethoven sensed such a possibility, responding with a finale whose opening easeful, recitative-like gestures suddenly plunge the listener into a seething cauldron of fugal interaction, one which largely dominates the movement. Houstoun's strength and energy really came into its own, here, and his playing vividly delineated the music's fugal form as a wonderfully jagged cliff-face, whose relief outlines displayed things such as augmentation, retrograde and inversion (as all good fugues ought). With him we climbed that cliff-face, experiencing the stature, grandeur and beauty of the journey, and braving things like suspensions, overhangs and false steps, and pausing for breath at a certain point to take in the full extent of the terrain thus far covered, savour its beauties and terrors, and then plunge upwards and onwards.

Having gone within hailing distance of the goal, the music then intensified the order of its going, requiring the pianist to interweave some of the elements thus far encountered, before finishing with a part-defiant, part-exultant ascent of the B-flat major scale of tenths and trills to the final tonic-dominant cadences of the work's summit. Resisting the temptation to employ Sir Edmund Hillary's famously reported description of his and Tensing's ascent of Everest at this point, I might instead say that Houstoun thus came, saw and on this occasion conquered. His traversal of all four sonatas (but especially the last!) justly drew forth a rapturous response from a near-filled Ilott Theatre, people almost without exception on their feet wholeheartedly acclaiming a stellar achievement.