Ian Dando

CD Classics by Ian Dando, NZ Listener

In 1993 our greatest pianist Michael Houstoun made history as the first [New Zealander] to record all thirty-two Beethoven piano sonatas. He also performed them in several of our main centres in a hectic seven recitals at two per week per city. 20-years later he repeated this marathon.

“That 1993 rush gave me no space to reflect on inadequacies. Now I am far more assured. I trust myself more. Also, the first were done at forty. This is a nice way to celebrate turning sixty,” quipped Houstoun.

Publicised as “Classical recording project of the decade,” Rattle’s venture received Parliament’s official launch and blessing on October 14. Rattle’s Steve Garden was given good advice from Victoria University’s deputy vice-chancellor, Neil Quigley, who suggested a Houstoun biography be written as integral part of the CD box. Houstoun’s lively commentaries on each sonata were added to produce a 190-page book.

Charlotte Wilson’s Biography of Michael Houstoun is written with ordered lucidity: a child prodigy at five, with the main piano teachers (Sister Eulalie and latterly Maurice Till during his adolescence) ensuring that Michael had won everything winnable here including the Concerto Contest. Thence to the overseas internationals where he came third in the Texas van Cliburn, the only competitor to receive a standing ovation. Next Britain‘s Leeds. Among the seventy-two contestants he climbed to the top four beside names like Dimitri Alexeev and András Schiff. In 1982 he made it to the finals again in the prestigious Moscow Tchaikovsky with its jury of 21.

If some zealot were to initiate a Complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas Contest overseas, Houstoun would be right up there among the top. His track record of consistent success in his three world piano contests would ensure that continuity. Beyond doubt he is a pianist of international calibre.

Top dog of the first few early works by far is Op 2 No 3. As farewell to Haydn’s influence, Beethoven’s new won volatility, bared teeth and all, bestrides the entire work. In the opening exposition alone, Houstoun must change his personality twelve-fold in two minutes to keep abreast of the rapid string of strong ideas and figurations.

Also new is letting the Op 10 and 31 sets of three speak their minds more boldly. None are peas out of the same pod. Houstoun’s launch of Op 10 No 1’s rocket salvos whizz up neatly, veering from dotted towards crisper double-dotted rhythms and underpedalling – both pluses if you savour your Beethoven clean, not fudged.

Only Beethoven has the crazy inventiveness to put each hand a semiquaver out of phase in Op 31 No 1. Houstoun turns it into wit, imparts a tragic depth in Op 31 no 2, owing to Beethoven’s marked onset of deafness, and an overall nobility for Op 31 No 3.

Houstoun wrings everything out of what he justly perceives as Beethoven’s unrivaled extremes of mood. This gives him the capacity to intensify the Pathétique into a sonata for ten fingers and a lock of hair. In the serene Pastoral Sonata Op 28 he serves us a sonata from Heaven with serene spirituality.

Houstoun can speak his mind too in his informative notes. He’s no fan of the “Moonlight” Sonata. To me, syrupy Liberace play-a-likes have already Hollywoodised the opening. The minuet is trite. I wake up when the turbulent finale revs up. Houstoun trumps me, dismissing that too as, “pitiless annihilation.” W-e-e-l-l. His performance is tasteful in an orthodox manner.

The middle period is an oasis of great name sonatas. Append ©Houstoun to the Appassionata Sonata — it’s his! No one else plays it with such committed fervour. Beethoven attacks his innocuously quiet opening tune with a home invasion of choleric fortissimos. That betokens the vehemence of genius on the fringe of insanity. Recording engineer Steve Garden underlines this event with sonic brilliance. 

Houstoun’s subtle half-pedalling dispatches the Waldstein Sonata rondo’s stately tune from Heaven via mist to Earth with Beethoven’s freakishly sparse damper pedalling, sometimes up to 24 bars before changing pedal. In the Sonata les Adieux he portrays the anguish of lovers parting company, then showering bravura bouquets of exhilaration at them on their reunion. In the two-movement Op 90 he profiles its two very contrasted moods sharply; the seven thematic ideas and one bridge compressed tersely into six pages followed by eleven leisurely pages of Schubertian song.

Garden intends releasing this issue abroad. “In some ways the work has only just begun,” he adds.

Op 106 (Hammerklavier)

Like Stravinsky’s Rite, the Hammerklavier never dates, despite its near two hundred years and its craggy 50-minute stature as the West’s greatest piano sonata. Houstoun opens its symphonic start with an imperious call-to-arms.

The essential Houstoun is his sublime religiosity of its 18-minute adagio. No dissonance expresses such anguish as those pleading dominant ninths in its minor key.  The huge closing fugue is the most complex written. Fusty academics write tracts on it. You may intuitively sense greatness in the air. Otherwise it’s a fugue you will respect rather than love. It was purportedly “unplayable.” Fear not. Houstoun’s valour encompasses it purposefully even in the inversion section climaxing on the explosive “Earthquake.” The other three movements are listenable. 

Op 101

Two places highlight Houstoun’s exacting techniques ideally. In the fast dotted-rhythm march that jumps round the keyboard, he captures its crisp angularity by tightening the rhythm to a near double-dotted neatness. He scarcely uses the damper pedal in this, nor in the fast four-voice fugue dominating the finale. His substitution of pedal for disciplined fingering gives us more fine detail. Ideal.

Op 111 and Op 109 

A single –name British legend Solomon toured these (then) erudite works here shortly after the war. When he reached their slow movement finales dissolving into continuous trills, he changed his demeanour by closing his eyes and looking upwards meditatively as though he and Beethoven were relishing the God-given grace of eternal life. Such spiritual serenity silenced his audience for some seconds then built up a slow crescendo of applause building to an inexorable standing ovation after five minutes.

Houstoun recorded the last three sonatas for a 2007 Trust Records DVD, featuring a searching 40-minute interview by Terry Snow (former editor of The NZ Listener). Houstoun already knew that spirituality was everything in late Beethoven sonatas and quartets. He has the complete Bach 48 Preludes and Fugues (so-called pianist’s “Old Testament”) in his repertoire, the Beethoven sonatas being The New Testament. Heavens, give us the Bach and he’ll be first to have played the complete Holy Bible.

Joking aside, Charlotte Wilson’s bio concludes with a Houstoun pearl where he puts his spiritual belief on the line. “The more I play this music the more I felt a pathway to the numinous, the mysterious core of all existence.”

Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Michael Houstoun