This is a superb edition, a landmark in NZ recording and music publication. The performances here show a fidelity to the text and clarity that is what serious followers of music expect. Michael Houston plays with extraordinary skill and consistency with every sonata, conveying the right tone and mood that each movement demands and working that into the whole. I have followed each sonata with the score and the performances are 'pitch perfect'. True, on one or two occasions my edition differs from what I hear. But this is a matter of musicology and doesn't interfere with the pleasure of listening, if anything only adding intrigue. By pitch perfect i mean that what you see on the page – phrasing, dynamics, articulation– he does. In this sense Houston's Beethoven should prove to be a great teaching tool. As a serious amateur myself, already I can see that this recording will feed into my own practice of the sonatas.
One of many pleasures to be had from this recording is the way Houston handles dynamics. He can shift from ff to pp in a flash. His crescendos and diminuendos are very apparent and he adheres to the pedal markings, including late-Beethoven pedal-sustaining over a long line, always a surprise to first-time listeners.
The performances are very satisfying. Rather than appearing chronologically, they are arranged in an original way by Houston according to a performance-type programme based on a late sonata appearing in each one of seven programmes. (He brings a freshness to well-trod ground, the 'Moonlight', for example!). The early sonatas are played by Houston with a rigour that the Classical era demands. You get a sense with the middle period sonatas of the over-arching structure, difficult in such long works, and the late sonatas are all remarkable, The late sonatas are one of the great achievements of Western culture and Houston has a sense of that. I particularly enjoyed the last movement of the Hammerklavier, where its fugal character is played with a Bach-like evenness and speed, all voices available to the listener.
Two other things of note I would like to mention. One is that the recording is great. At last we have a recording that matches the performance. Too often I have heard Houston on radio where the piano sounds in the distance and hollow, compromising the performance. Here the piano is full, to the fore and resonant. Just what you want. Thanks to Rattle and Steve Garden.
The second is that Houston's Beethoven is at the sumptuous end of CD publications. I didn't bother with a download, as the physical object is so rich: cloth bound, cool CD sleeves in card rather than plastic, and a decent booklet with Houston's take on each sonata. It is a sharp design in black, punctuated by details from a Phillip Trusttrum artwork.
Any performance of the last Beethoven piano sonatas in NZ is an event (I heard John Chen play Op. 111 earlier in the year for his doctoral recital in Auckland), but to have a New Zealand release of all the sonatas that is so well conceived is remarkable. An event indeed.