Michael Houstoun

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Douglas Lilburn (composer)

Michael Houstoun (piano)

Best Classical Album, NZ Music Awards, 2013

In 2010 I was approached by playwright Dave Armstrong to see if I might be interested in being part of Rita and Douglas, a theatrical presentation built around the letters written to Douglas Lilburn by painter Rita Angus. The letters that Lilburn wrote to Angus were destroyed, so his contribution to the dialogue in the show was replaced by his music. It is a marvellous concept, and the show has achieved great success. As Rita, actor Jennifer Ward-Lealand triumphed in solving the difficult problem of turning words that were written to be read into powerful and moving speech.

To help Dave in his selection of the music, I made a study of all of Lilburn’s compositions for solo piano - a much larger corpus than I had realised. Although this album does not comprise a soundtrack of Rita and Douglas, a considerable amount of music from the show has been included. It may be fair to say that the balance is made up of music I might have liked to be in the show but for which there was no room.

In the end we have come up with something of a ‘sampler’ - music from all periods of Lilburn’s life: a sonata, a sonatina, longer short pieces, shorter short pieces, music for children, and incidental music for Shakespeare’s plays. I am grateful to Dave (and Jennifer, Conrad, Paul, Nik, Caroline, Lucie and Abby) without whom there would be no Rita and Douglas and without whom I might never have come to know this wonderful and valuable music.
- Michael Houstoun, October 2012

Douglas Lilburn
Douglas Lilburn occupied a pre-eminent position in New Zealand. Lilburn’s music, from the early nostalgic canzonas to his electoacoustic images, has a strong emotional appeal. It acknowledges the richness of a predominantly European musical heritage while finding a distinctively New Zealand voice. What binds both the conservative and innovative elements is personal integrity. Lilburn explained Vaughan Williams’s paradoxical advice to ‘cut out all the bits you like best’ as meaning ‘don’t be clever, don’t be silly, don’t try to impress - search for what is valid in your intuition, your understanding, and go from that’.

Michael Houstoun
A household name in New Zealand for many years, Michael Houstoun is New Zealand’s most respected and loved classical musician. His commitment to performing New Zealand repertoire has led to our paths crossing on numerous occasions over the years, but with this recording both Michael and Rattle have realised a shared dream. Michael performed much of Douglas Lilburn's piano music in the theatre production of Rita and Douglas (in which he shared the stage with Jennifer Ward-Leland for the entire performance), through which he re-connected with the music of New Zealand's most highly-lauded composer. The programme chosen for this album is a selection of Michael's personal favourites, and the result is an inspired (and inspiring) celebration of some of this countries finest piano music played by one of our greatest living musicians. Beautifully produced and recorded by Kenneth Young and Steve Garden respectively, Lilburn is sure to widely recognised as a landmark recording.  


RAT-D040 (November, 2012)

Produced by Kenneth Young
Recorded by Steve Garden at the Gallagher Academy of Performing Arts, University of Waikato (Aug, 2012)  
Piano tuning by Glenn Easley
Edited by Kenneth Young and Steve Garden
Mixed and mastered by Steve Garden
Design by UnkleFranc

  Michael Houstoun

    1  Sonata (1949) Mvt 1 (1:40)
    2  Sonata (1949) Mvt 2 (3:26)
    3  Sonata (1949) Mvt 3 (6:16) 
    4  1942 Prelude No. 1 (5:31)
    5  1942 Prelude No. 2 (3:00)
    6  Bagatelle 1 (5:27)
    7  Bagatelle 4 From the Port Hills (3:50)
    8  Bagatelle 5 (3:07)
    9  Moths and Candles (3:29)
  10  Music Box No.1 (6:12)
  11  Three Sea Changes No. 1 (6:07)
  12  Three Sea Changes No. 2 (2:35)
  13  Three Sea Changes No. 3 (2:55)
  14  Rondino (3:34)
  15  Willow Song (3:49)
  16  Player's Music (1:54)
  17  Prelude 1951 (4:04)
  18  Sonatina No. 2 Mvt 1 (3:52)
  19  Sonatina No. 2 Mvt 2 (4:53)
  20  Sonatina No. 2 Mvt 3 (1:02)
  21  Still Music for W.N.R. (1973) (3:03)
  22  1951 Prelude No. 1 (2:33)
  23  1951 Prelude No. 2 (4:25)
  24  Poco lento (2:50)
  Total playing time  (70:21)

All works © Douglas Lilburn


Douglas Lilburn


PROGRAMME NOTES by Philip Norman


Douglas Lilburn’s reputation as a composer was founded principally on his orchestral and string orchestral writing. Prize-winning orchestral works such as Forest (1936), Drysdale Overture (1937) and Festival Overture (1939), as well as the now classic Overture: Aotearoa (1940), first brought his name to attention. Allegro (1941), Landfall in Unknown Seas (1942) and Diversions (1947), all for string orchestra, kept his name in front of the public from the 1940s and, later, his larger orchestral works, including three symphonies, affirmed his standing as New Zealand’s leading composer. These compositions, along with his achievements in electro-acoustic music in the late 1960s and 1970s, were the public face of his success.

Relatively over-looked during his lifetime was a body of work that could be considered the private face of his success as a composer – his music for solo piano. In this instrument, on which he was an able performer, lay his laboratory of sound.

Extensions of his compositional technique displayed in his orchestral writing can usually be found trialled first in his piano pieces. Indeed, his orchestral compositions, Symphony No.3 aside, all show signs of a pianistic conception. It is also in his piano music that the greatest breadth of expression and extremes of demand on performer technique can be found – from the virtuosic flourishes of Chaconne (1946) to the simple diatonic utterances of his early preludes. Some of his pieces were composed with concert pianists in mind, such as Frederick Page, Margaret Nielsen and Lili Kraus; others were composed as gifts for friends who were hobby pianists – such as the two L.B.s (Leo Bensemann and Lawrence Baigent), for whom several works on this CD were written or arranged.

By the time of Lilburn’s death in 2001, virtually all of his compositions had been aired through performances, recordings and publications. The exceptions were a surprising number of piano pieces, some little more than fragments, some as large as fully formed movements. The discovery of these, along with their posthumous airing, has stimulated a re-evaluation of his oeuvre. There is now little doubt that Lilburn’s output for piano is of equal consequence to his orchestral and electro-acoustic outputs, and that it affirms his stature as, even today, New Zealand’s premier composer.



Sonata (1949)
The three movement Sonata (1949) was completed in early 1949 and premiered by Frederick Page at a meeting of the Society of Registered Music Teachers in Wellington on 21 May 1949, followed, on 19 June, by a premiere broadcast by Page, on 2YA. Frederick Page (1905-1983) was Lilburn’s head of department at Victoria University College and life-long champion (electro-acoustic music excepted) of Lilburn’s music. The sonata is regarded as one of the composer’s most successful works and a particularly representative example of Lilburn’s writing in the late 1940s.

Two Preludes (1942)
These pieces were first unveiled in Christmas 1942, a collection of piano pieces written for and presented to Lilburn’s friends ‘Messrs L.B.’ – Lawrence Baigent and Leo Bensemann. The preludes are the first and the fourth of Five Preludes within this collection and were published posthumously by Waiteata Music Press in Musical Offerings. The second of the two preludes, marked Allegro grazioso, is one of the best-known of Lilburn’s piano works. It was first published in the 1944 Lady Newall’s New Zealand Gift Book, an annual fund-raising project during the war years for the National Patriotic Fund. This was followed with a publication by Caxton Press, Christchurch in 1945, as the first of Four Preludes for piano, and by Price Milburn Music, Wellington in 1975 as the first prelude in Four Preludes, 1942-4.

Three Bagatelles
Five Bagatelles from which Bagatelles 1, 4 and 5 for piano have been extracted, was completed in August 1942 and premiered by Noel Newson at a concert presented by the Royal Christchurch Musical Society on 12 December 1942 (coincidentally the day before the premiere of Landfall in Unknown Seas). Apart from Bagatelle No. 4, which Lilburn extracted in the early 1980s and re-titled From the Port Hills, Lilburn was not fond of the material and discarded the set in the early 1980s.

Moths and Candles
This short descriptive piece was extracted from Lilburn’s 1950 score to accompany The First Two Years at School, a documentary film on philosophies of early childhood education, directed by Margaret Thompson for the National Film Unit.

Musical Box No.1: The Lassie’s Lament and The Highland Gathering
These pieces were written for Lawrence Baigent and Leo Bensemann and presented to them for Christmas 1941 as part of what Lilburn titled A Musical Offering of Preludes, Musical Boxes, and a Tempo di Bolero for six hands. Lilburn inscribed an ‘Apologia (Clerihew and Chorus)’ on the title page:
Musical-boxes says Lawrence
Excite my abhorrence
And these preludes says Bensemann
There’s really no sense in ‘em

Three Sea Changes
As Lilburn himself described, “The first of these came off Brighton Beach in ’45, exuberant and sunlit but with a tolling undertone; the second was from Paekakariki about ’52 – a more expansive view of the same elements; the third was tidied up in ’81 from earlier sketches, is quiet as befits an evening piece and uses white notes only.” [in Philip Norman Douglas Lilburn, Canterbury University Press, 2006, p302]

Rondino dates from 1952, the same year as the second Sea Change, from the time Lilburn was living by the sea in Paekakariki and commuting to work at the Victoria University College Music Department in Wellington. It was published in 1975 by Price Milburn Music in Occasional Pieces for Piano, and as a result of this publication was shortly afterwards included in the Trinity College syllabus (Grade V) along with the second prelude of Two Preludes 1951. This was a rare distinction for the time.

Willow Song
Willow Song originated as incidental music for a 1944 production of Shakespeare’s Othello by the University of Canterbury Drama Society, directed by Ngaio Marsh. Such was the production’s success that it was taken on a tour of New Zealand later in 1944, along with a revival production of Hamlet from the preceding year. Willow Song, for mezzo-soprano and piano, proved particularly popular and became the first of Lilburn’s compositions to be commercially released on disc. This was in 1951, on the TANZA (To Assist New Zealand Artists) label, CL1. In 1978 Lilburn revised the song, and in 1980 reworked it as the second canzona in Four Canzonas for strings. The solo piano version of Willow Song, however, dates from late 1944 and was presented to “Messrs LB and Mary” [Bensemann] as part of A Christmas Offering 1944.

Players’ Music
Player’s Music originated as incidental music for a 1943 production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet by the University of Canterbury Drama Society directed by Ngaio Marsh. The solo piano version dates from later in 1943 and was included in Christmas 1943, Lilburn’s gift that year ‘For Messrs L.B.’ [Lawrence Baigent and Leo Bensemann]. In 1980 Lilburn reworked and rescored the music as the first of Four Canzonas for strings.

Prelude 1951
Though composed in 1951, Prelude 1951 was not given a public airing until after Lilburn retired from Victoria University of Wellington in 1980. It emerged from his extended period of revision in the early 1980s, was premiered by Margaret Nielsen and included on a Kiwi Pacific LP recording by this pianist released in 1986. Margaret Nielsen recalls she first sighted the piece in the mid-1960s at the time she was assisting Lilburn select items for his Nine Short Pieces for Piano collection: “It had such an aromatic French flavour that I immediately loved it”. Lilburn and Nielsen later fell into the habit of referring to the Prelude as “The Ravel-ian one”. [email Margaret Nielsen to Philip Norman, 2 November 2012]

Sonatina No.2
This piece was written in 1962 and dedicated to Lilburn’s friend and colleague on the Victoria University College Music Department staff, Margaret Nielsen. The pianist arrived back from lunch one day to find the music sitting on the music stand of her piano – “no note, no explanation, just the score itself”. [in Philip Norman Douglas Lilburn, p.214] Nielsen premiered the work at a concert organised by the Wellington Society for Contemporary Music held in the Music Room at the university on 22 July 1962. The three-movement work was first recorded by Nielsen in 1972 for the Kiwi label (SLD-32), and first published, in 1973, by Price Milburn in Two Sonatinas.

Still Music for W.N.R. (1973)
By the 1970s, Lilburn had all but given up writing for conventional instruments, with his attention captured by the seemingly infinite possibilities of electro-acoustic composition. Only a few short pieces for solo instruments, principally the piano, emerged during this decade. Still Music for W.N.R. was one of these, written for a long-standing friend and hobby pianist, Christchurch psychiatrist William (Bill) Norrie Rogers. The piece was published in 1975 by Price Milburn Music in Occasional Pieces for Piano and for many years, along with Andante commodo of the same year, was considered to be the last of Lilburn’s compositions for a conventional instrument.

Two Preludes, 1951
These two preludes were further products of a good year for Lilburn’s piano composition, aided, no doubt, by a half-year sabbatical, and the inspiration of coastal living in Paekakariki. Price Milburn Music published both in 1975 in Occasional Pieces for Piano, and the second of the two was shortly afterwards included in the Trinity College syllabus (Grade V), along with Rondino.

Poco lento
Poco lento was composed in 1956 and published in Price Milburn Music’s 1975 publication Occasional Pieces for Piano. While the opening melodic idea relates specifically to a theme in his 1956 Piano Sonata (last movement), Poco lento shows in general many of the characteristics of Lilburn’s compositional style. There is a favourite performance indication – lontano (distantly), there are passages of stillness contrasted with a flurry of activity, there is contrary motion between the hands, and there is increasing harmonic ambiguity, particularly as the piece approaches its close.



Review by Simon Sweetman, Off the Tracks

Michael Houstoun is New Zealand’s greatest classical pianist, a player of fierce imagination and immaculate technique. He’s a world-class performer and he has campaigned tirelessly for/on behalf of contemporary Kiwi composers, dedicated so much of his time – and career – to celebrating some of New Zealand’s great (underappreciated) composers such as Mike Nock, Gillian Whitehead, Lilburn and in fact many others.

Here we have Houstoun at the piano for a beautiful set of solo pieces; a hand-picked selection of Douglas Lilburn’s fine creations for solo piano. It’s Houstoun’s gift that in serving this music so well he gives us two voices – his own (through the playing) and Lilburn’s (through the writing).

Beginning with 1949’s three-movement Sonata, the 24 [pieces of music on this album cover] Lilburn’s entire career, including a selection of music from the play Rita and Douglas which Houstoun performed with Jennifer Ward-Lealand. You can feel how close Michael Houstoun is to this work - you can feel and hear him offering up so much of himself in this set.

And thanks must go, once again, to Rattle – not only for the music but for the presentation. For those that care about the CD still, Rattle has your back. Presenting their new CDs as if tiny books – hard-cover, with thoughtful liners, this is music to share, to enjoy, music that will last – that has already lasted. And the presentation brings back the idea of being proud of ownership, of placing the physical item (with pride) on the shelf, or in some form of display. And I like that. You might too.

But you buy this CD for the music. The packaging is a bonus – if you choose to see it that way. The music is stunning. Glorious first thing in the morning, haunting late at night – this has been my favourite feel-good CD across the last month or so.