William Dart

William Dart, NZ Herald

Rattle has come up with a first in the recording history of our country with this magnificent release. Michael Houstoun delivers the complete Beethoven piano sonatas on 14 CDs, housed in a sturdy and stylish slipcase that also contains a 180-page hardbound book.

By no means the signing-off of a career, this is a celebration of a life devoted to music that began when, as a 13-year-old boy, Houstoun enjoyed his first recording session in a Timaru radio station.

In the book, Charlotte Wilson fluently charts the pianist's life at some length, with first-name informality. Photographs range from him as a teenager posing with a motorcycle to the flower-strewn curtain-calls of his Beethoven tour last year.

Houstoun has always been an individualist, and the searching interpretations of these works have emerged from decades of study and investigation.

Approaching chords, he always finds both the right balance and colours to illuminate what lies in the music. They can even be teased out, almost to sing, brilliantly caught by Steve Garden's recording, mixing and mastering, doing all to perfection.

Here is a pianist who knows the value of silence, dramatically so when he storms through the great first movements of thePathetique and Appassionata sonatas.

A master of phrasing, Houstoun insists that musical sentences make sense and communicate. How generously he allows the great slow movements to bloom, even with the occasional moment of deliberated reticence.

All is not unceasingly profound. In the 41 pages of commentary in the accompanying book is talk of drunken trios and puckish wit.

Houstoun does not shirk the philosophical implications of the late sonatas, in both performance and commentary. He marvels at how passions, sufferings, striving and desperation are given a cathartic release in just nine bars of the final sonata.

He feels that this work, awkwardly described as "the transcendental essence of humanness", will challenge both pianists and listeners and its rewards will be unfathomable.

In music, as in life, mysteries may remain and possibly should, but this fine collection takes us so much nearer to realising and appreciating their implications and significance.


Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Michael Houstoun