Christopher’s Classics – 28 November 2020 Michael Houstoun Reviewed by Tony Ryan
Michael Houstoun’s rather matter-of-fact stage manner belied the heart-melting projection of the opening bars of Bach’s keyboard Partita No. 4 in D. From that point on, Houstoun’s ability to convey the essence of Bach’s expressive range regardless of the outwardly restrictive forms of the movements of the Baroque suite, radiated from every phrase.
For once, in a live performance of a Bach keyboard work, it was that expressive ingredient that dominated Saturday night’s performance for me. In the livelier Courant and Gigue movements, the pianist’s exceptionally impressive textural clarity and technical dexterity were always at the service of the ‘heart’ of the music; and his intuition for contrasts of emotion and insights into the composer’s intellectual range emerged with a feeling of spontaneity and seeming inevitability. Michael Houstoun never used the power or dynamic possibilities of the modern concert grand piano to make a point or to emphasise his own perceptions of the music; he simply let the music speak for itself in a way that only a musician of his calibre can achieve.
But the wonders of the Partita that opened this programme hardly prepared us for the Chaconne which followed. Here again, we heard a performance of such naturalness and simplicity in its presentation that it’s difficult to know where to allocate the credit between Bach, Busoni and Houstoun. This Chaconne from Bach’s Partita No. 2 for solo violin has long been central to the repertoire of every violinist of note but, as Michael Houstoun points out in his very personal and helpful programme notes, Busoni’s transcription is equally beloved by pianists.
If Houstoun’s performance of the fourth Partita transmitted the expressive, spiritual and intellectual essence of Bach, Busoni takes that a step further. The later composer doesn’t ‘intervene’ in Bach’s creation so much as simply reveal what he hears and feels in it himself. All of us, with the hindsight of all the music that we now know from beyond Bach’s time and place in history, inevitably hear his music differently and with wider resonances than his contemporaries. Busoni simply helps us to see further inside the extraordinary world of this astonishing masterpiece. If, again, the benefits of the modern concert grand were unknown to Bach, Busoni is able to use it to reveal more of the visionary qualities than the actual written notes imply; and Houstoun then adds, without overstatement, his own life-experience and perception in a way that brings us even closer to the marvels and spirituality of this piece.
For myself and many others, Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven has long been a peak of the life-enhancing experience that music and art can give us. But, if the Beethoven performances in this concert didn’t quite reach the heights of the Bach pieces in the first part of the programme, they remain significant interpretations of music that many of us have known as long as the player himself.
As a listener, the Hammerklavier Sonata was one of my earliest attempts to get to grips with Beethoven’s less easily assimilated works. Its great Adagio Sostenuto struck me from the start as a vast landscape whose special beauties are highlighted by the rugged and misty terrain of its surrounding lower reaches. In singling out this movement from the rest of this biggest of Beethoven’s sonatas, Michael Houstoun highlighted these peaks even more, and I know from conversations with others in this audience, that, for them, this was the programme’s highlight.
But personally, like the famous Waldstein Sonata that followed, I wondered if Houstoun’s deep immersion in Bach in recent years led to a performance that tried to ‘let the music speak for itself’ in the same way that made the Bach pieces so special. For me, the pianist’s approach to Beethoven’s dramatic contrasts of tempi and dynamics were less overt than I have become used to; this music seems to demand more input of the player’s personality in quite a different way than in Bach. Whereas Bach’s keyboards were far less capable of dynamic and expressive contrasts compared to Beethoven’s, especially by the time he wrote the Hammerklavier, the later composer is known to have made the fullest possible use, as both a player and a composer, of the rapidly developing range and capabilities of the piano. Even so, this was certainly a concert to treasure and remember.
Christopher’s Classics 2021 – Series XXVI Reviewer Tony Ryan looks forward to the innovative programming of the 2021 season. If Beethoven was the thematic thread in the 2020 season of Christopher’s Classics which celebrated both the series’ twenty-fifth year and the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, the 2021 season’s line-up celebrates diversity and innovation . . . and with not a single work by Beethoven in sight!
THE CHRISTOPHER MARSHALL CONCERT FOR STARS OF THE FUTURE is an additional feature of the 2021 season in tribute to the series’ founder and his long-time support of New Zealand musicians. The inaugural concert in July will promote the already well-known talents of Lixin Zhang in an all-Chopin programme. As well as this, the 2021 season also expands the series to seven subscription concerts.
SIX WORKS BY NEW ZEALAND COMPOSERS are sprinkled through the upcoming series along with a work by Gao Ping whose past work in Christchurch makes him almost a local. Two works by Gareth Farr and one by Peter Liley are included in the Trio Élan’s programme which opens the new season in April. The inclusion of saxophone is a notable feature of this trio – not an instrument that’s often encountered in chamber music concerts – in an innovative programme that also contains music by Debussy and Piazzolla alongside a work by American saxophonist Russ Peterson. Other New Zealand composers in the new season include Alex Taylor, Dorothea Franchi and a young local composer whose identity and work are yet to be announced. FRENCH MUSIC features in several programmes, including a reprise of one of the highlights of the 2020 season. Ravel’s Trio will be encored by a different group in 2021 when the Argyle Trio play it in their September concert as part of an all-French programme. French works are also a strong component in the programme of another trio, Les Voisins, in August. In this ensemble, Simon Martyn-Ellis (theorbo and guitars) joins two familiar Christopher’s Classics musicians, Justine Cormack (violin) and James Bush (cello), in a programme that includes more Ravel, works from the French Baroque, a New Zealand ‘reimagining’ of that era, and some “Hot Club de France” with four of Django Reinhardt’s best-known pieces. But top of my list for must-see French music is Les Bon Vivants’ inclusion of Ravel’s gorgeous Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet which ends this twenty-sixth season in October.
TWO WORKS BY THAT MASTER OF CHAMBER MUSIC, JOHANNES BRAHMS are included in two of the earlier concerts. In April Serenity Thurlow and Diedre Irons will play one of his very last compositions, the Sonata for Viola and Piano No. 1 in a programme that also includes Hindemith’s 1919 Sonata for Viola and Piano and Shostakovich’s very last work, his darkly austere Sonata for Viola and Piano. The other Brahms work is his TrioOp. 8 played by the Te Koki Trio in May, along with works by Kodaly and Bartok. Although new to Christopher’s Classics, the Te Koki Trio is led by a musician who is very familiar to Christchurch audiences as concertmaster of the Christchurch Symphony, violinist Martin Riseley.
THE NEW ZEALAND STRING QUARTET returns in September 2021 – they are always welcome and regular visitors to the Christopher’s Classics series – with music by Purcell, Britten and Gao Ping, and a work that I look forward to hearing live in concert more than anything: Smetana’s colourful and original String Quartet No. 2. With such a varied and innovative line-up of music and performers, the 2021 Season of Christopher’s Classics is certainly destined to make up for some of the difficulties of the last few months.
Acknowledgements: We thank the Rata Foundation, Gloria Streat, Antonio Strings Chamber Music New Zealand and private donors, whose patronage and sponsorship grants make these concerts possible.