Beethoven Piano Sonatas
Best Classical Album - 2015 NZ Music Awards
“Outstanding Beethoven all round. The special attraction is the rare spiritual dimension in Houstoun’s playing of the serene finales... It’s as though Beethoven were no longer of this planet when he wrote them”.
— The Listener
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|Chamber Music New Zealand's 2013 ReCycle Series featured acclaimed New Zealand pianist Michael Houstoun performing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas in concerts throughout the country over the course of the year. Michael simultaneously recorded the series with producer Kenneth Young and engineer Steve Garden, and the result is this beautifully packaged 14-CD hardcover boxed set complete with a hardcover book featuring Michael's illuminating notes on each of the sonatas, and an engaging biography by Charlotte Wilson.
The music in this collection follows the carefully curated programming of the ReCycle Series. The fourteen CDs are divided into seven 2-disc programmes, representing the first and second half of each concert respectively. We retained the ReCycle programming to replicate the original concert experience, but also because to offer a satisfying and illuminating appreciation of this extraordinary body of work.
Michael is not only New Zealand’s foremost Beethoven pianist, he ranks among the great Beethoven pianists of our age. The complete piano sonatas is a body of work that constitutes some of the supreme treasures of human artistic endeavour. Written over the length of the composer's creative life – from the early Op 2 to the mighty Op 111 – these works are widely regarded as the “New Testament" of the solo piano repertoire.
Michael returns to Beethoven at the very height of his powers.
RAT-D048/14 (October, 2014)
This recording was made possible with support from the Wallace Arts Trust and Victoria University of Wellington
Produced by Kenneth Young
Recorded by Steve Garden at the Adam Concert Room, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
Piano tuning by Michael Ashby
Design by UnkleFranc
Painting by Philip Trusttum
Painting courtesy of The James Wallace Arts Trust
Printing by Studio Q
Michael Houstoun, who is one of the world’s great pianists and one of the foremost interpreters of Beethoven’s piano music, has just released a boxed set of the complete sonatas of the composer which will set a new bench mark for recordings of these works.
In 2013, Chamber Music New Zealand's ReCycle Series featured the pianist performing the complete Beethoven piano sonatas in a nationwide tour. This would be a major release by any recording company but for a New Zealand company this is a remarkable undertaking. Rattle Records, now part of Victoria University Press is to be congratulated.
The breadth of the accomplishment can be heard in the playing. Houston seems to have understood every phrase that Beethoven wrote, bringing a technical virtuosity to exploring the musical and emotional depths of these sonatas. These are not just explorations of the music but also of Beethoven’s psyche.
Mr Houstoun achieved fame early in his career with prizes from three of the world’s most prestigious piano competitions – the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition (1973), the Leeds Competition (1975), and the Tchaikovsky Competition (1982). Since then, he has been constantly in demand to perform with national orchestras and chamber ensembles as well as many overseas orchestras.
The boxed set of the 32 sonatas comes with a booklet about the pianist. Written by Charlotte Wilson, it provides an informative insight into Houstoun’s life and his approach to music and includes several extensive comments by the pianist.
He says of his interest in the composer “It was Beethoven who woke me up to myself as a musician. The thing about Beethoven is that he somehow synthesises human psychological truths, with all of their subtlety and all of their range, into music. One of the remarkable things about this cycle is that Beethoven never repeats himself, not once.
"He could always work on several pieces at the same time and yet they could have unbelievably contrasting psychological, spiritual, emotional contents – from something as bright and joyous and incredible as the Waldstein, for instance, to the Appassionata, which is about as dark as it gets. And then, everything he identifies in those pieces is somehow true, so that human beings when they hear them are constantly acknowledging themselves as they listen.
"Beethoven tells you about yourself. The even more astonishing thing about these sonatas is that when he wrote most of them he was already deaf. So he wrote always beyond the instrument. This is the music in his ears. They are difficult, there is something virtuosic about all of them, even the so-called ‘easy’ ones. That’s because he was ahead of his time and because, when he was young, he was the best pianist in the world. He would have outplayed everybody else on the planet.
"And he always asked for extreme sonorities as well. There are some things – like the octave glissandi in the last movement of theWaldstein, or Op 111 where he takes your hands out to the absolute extreme pianissimo trills up the top – he does ask for things that are almost impossible. However, you can see that they are driven by such totally musical necessity that you do everything you possibly can to try to make them work. It’s a remarkable thing for me to play these sonatas again, and it was a remarkable thing the first time around. I think I measured myself with that then, and I’ll be measuring myself with it again now.
"This time it’s a different experience, because I’m older, and music is a whole different world for me from i 20 years ago. I think I’m a more natural musician than I was before. I’m much more relaxed, and more in tune with the sonorities of the instrument.
"I still love clarity, people have always said to me that my playing is clear, and I think that’s important – clarity allows the audience to choose for themselves what they want out of the music. For me, I’ll be even less inclined to impose myself on the music, and to impose my own ideas. What is important is sincerity, and not getting in the way, and being true to the instrument. I’m just going to practise, and play. And see what happens.”
John Daly-Peoples, National Business Review
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.
William Dart, NZ Herald
If Chuck Berry’s hit Roll Over Beethoven was meant to dethrone the composer from his place in Western culture, it didn’t work. In the intervening years, Beethoven’s music has featured in over 700 movies alone, not to mention a plethora of commercials and even on the ‘77 Voyager Golden Record sent out for extra-terrestrial appreciation (with Berry as a fellow passenger).
For us earth-bound life forms, however, Beethoven’s inclusion on our playlists is an open ended question. But if anyone can make the case for that inclusion, it is New Zealand's piano giant Michael Houstoun with his monumental recording of all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas – well worth a listen if you’re looking for something outside your comfort zone over the summer.
Split into seven digestible programmes with an accompanying 190 page book, Houston’s ever crisp, sometimes playful, often brooding interpretations of the Sonatas imbues new life even to tired film standards like the ‘Moonlight’ sonata. Here, he uses tasteful emotional restraint to save us all from soppy over-sentimentality, and reminds us all that the romance suggested by its nickname completely misses the “death and dread” that the music itself portends (in typical Beethoven fashion).
Producer-engineer Steve Garden’s impeccable ear for crisp dynamic balance is essential here, ensuring Houston’s virtuosity translates well from stage to recording. Houston’s insightful liner notes provide a narrative guide through the sonatas, an essential “how to…” when listening to music that is such a thrilling contradiction of moods, much like the composer himself.
Take the Appassionata for instance, where the reflective opening bars are soon continually interrupted with thrilling 19th century power chords that refuse to allow serenity to triumph. By the time Houstoun has finished his exhilarating interpretation of this emotional tour de force, hurtling you (in his words) “powerfully towards the abyss,” you’ll see why even Beethoven took a four year holiday from composing sonatas after Appassionata.
If you need a breather too, put your feet up and play one of the shorter sonatas like ‘For Therese.’ As Houstoun remarks, the second movement imaginatively suggests Therese von Brunsvik had small dog which “tore about the mansion… falling over itself.” The sonata foregrounds a playful side to Beethoven we don’t often hear, and Houstoun captures all this hopefulness and jovial appreciation in the sonata, along with a touch of delicacy on the piano that reveals the deep affection Beethoven possessed for all the women he was so famously unsuccessful in wooing.
Of course, the recording is an historic accomplishment too, making Houstoun the first pianist to ever record all of Beethoven’s piano sonatas. He tastefully divides 11 hours of music into seven programmes, performed twice in a tour of concerts by the pianist, first in 1993 and again last year. It’s best consumed a programme at a time, to really appreciate the thought Houstoun puts into dividing up the ‘name’ sonatas like ‘Waldstein’ and ‘Hammerklavier’ between lesser known but no less fantastic works, each of which develop a portrait of Beethoven -- innovator, artist and eccentric extraordinaire.
For those of us less familiar with the composer however, it might be worth breaking it up into bite-sized chunks to appreciate over the summer – Beethoven’s not going anywhere. Play it with a good sound system or even a decent set of headphones so Garden’s excellent audio mastering is able to shine through. Get comfortable, pick up the booklet, and peruse through it as Houstoun offers an insider’s view into the sonic world he attempts to create with Beethoven’s music.
It’s also worth reading Charlotte Wilson’s lucid “Portrait of Michael Houstoun” which follows these liner notes, providing an insight into the making of New Zealand’s greatest pianist. Peppered with thoughtful photographs, Wilson's essay charts Michael’s growth from a competition-winning child prodigy in New Zealand through to his heroic determination to conquer focal dystonia in the early 2000s.Houstoun comments in this biography that “there is a very particular affinity I have with Beethoven. There is a power in this music… physical, emotional, psychological power.” Both giants share a common bond, having faced physical impediments essential to their art – deafness for the composer, muscle control for Houstoun – and both conquered these obstacles to produce their finest work.
Perhaps nothing expresses this better than the Sonata in A flat, one of the last piano works Beethoven ever composed, and the culmination of Houstoun’s sixth programme. Beethoven was completely deaf for many years by the time this sonata was written, yet it embodies the power and triumph of a composer who wrote his best work in the midst of every musician’s nightmare. Houstoun brings the piece to life with dynamic brilliance, expressing the full breadth of emotion right from the serene opening chords of the sonata to the “self-immolation” that characterises the rising final bars.
If Beethoven could hear Houstoun’s interpretation, he’d roll back over and rest easy.
Andrew Dawson, Elsewhere
This must certainly rate as the classical release of the year for New Zealand records, replicating the marathon performance of 32 sonatas - like the live tours that Houstoun made round the country in 1993 and again last year.
The soloist has long been regarded as a top-ranking Beethoven interpreter and is widely celebrated as one of our finest pianists.
This deluxe set is to be released internationally and in my view it should also be greatly appreciated worldwide. The package has a solid hand-crafted box containing the 14-CD set in solid binding plus an attractive hard-cover illustrated book. It includes extensive and interesting notes by the pianist on each of the composer's piano sonatas, as well as Charlotte Wilson's biographical portrait of Houstoun, with the pianist's chronology and discography.
The 14 discs are divided into seven two-disc programmes, with each pair being the first and second half of each concert in last year's tour. Beautifully recorded at Victoria University by Steve Garden and produced by Kenneth Young, this set should become a collector's item for many classical fans. Houstoun gives a majestic and intelligent performance throughout, made all the more interesting by providing his lively written commentary on each work.
Of course, one rushes to hear Sonata gems such as the Appassionata, Moonlight, Pathetique, Waldstein, Pastoral, Hammerklavier, etc. But we can appreciate the great artistry and Beethoven's extremes of mood in all 32, so sensitively portrayed. Houstoun performs with devotion, seeing ''some basic psychological power in this music that I feel is not in Mozart or Haydn''.
Geoff Adams, Otago Daily Times, November 2014
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 serious music followers 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 – Houstoun does. In this sense his 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
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. They are 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 Trustrum print.
Any performance of the last Beethoven piano sonatas in NZ is an event, but to have in NZ all the sonatas released and so well conceived is remarkable. An event indeed.
Michael Houstoun’s Beethoven on Rattle
By Peter Mechen, 01/12/2014
BEETHOVEN – The Piano Sonatas
Michael Houstoun (piano)
Rattle RAT DO48 2014
Recording published by Rattle, a division of Victoria University Press 2014 (supported by Sir James Wallace and The Wallace Arts Trust)
With his recently-released set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas recorded for Rattle Records, Michael Houstoun joins a select number of pianists who have recorded the cycle more than once. And though he’s in pretty stellar company, here, alongside luminaries such as Wilhelm Kempff, Alfred Brendel, Wilhelm Backhaus, Daniel Barenboim and Friedrich Gulda, with this latest issue Houstoun can, in my opinion, hold his head up proudly in their company.
Had the pianist’s previous cycle for Trust Records, dating from the mid-1990s, been better and more consistently recorded, we would have had two “classic” performances of the works to savour and enjoy, each wholly characteristic of Houstoun’s playing at the time of recording. Alas, that earlier set remains compromised in places by variable sound, the promise of the first instalment of the Middle Period” sonatas thwarted by later production efforts which to my ears don’t do the pianism throughout the rest of the cycle proper justice.
Happily, the latest set, recorded in the New Zealand School of Music’s Adam Concert Room at Victoria University of Wellington by Steve Garden, in tandem with producer Kenneth Young and piano-tuner Michael Ashby, has caught a consistently true and (one or two reservations notwithstanding) eminently listenable sound-picture. It’s one that I can readily equate with what I heard of Houstoun’s playing in no less than three different venues during his 2013 concert performances of the cycle. I would still go back occasionally to that very first “Middle Period” Trust set of CDs to remind myself of how good Houstoun’s Beethoven was at that time, but it’s to the new set I would now almost unreservedly turn for a more far-reaching (and, of course more current) view of these works.
The presence and clarity of the sound is just one of the strengths of the new enterprise, though I would recommend that listeners to the set play the recordings at as high a volume setting as they dare, without offending neighbours, unsympathetic family members or musically recalcitrant pets. Before plunging into this “Beethovenian ocean” on my own, I had taken the set to a friend’s place to “sample” one of the discs, and the “Tempest” Sonata was chosen as a “test” piece – it didn’t impress as much as I had hoped, the sound seeming to lack both brightness and warmth as well as sufficient detail. But at home, and then at another friend’s house I listened at a higher volume – and the sound-picture was practically transformed! – now, the notes had plenty of “ring” and Houstoun’s detailing of the passage-work was opened up through being brought closer, and revealed as replete with interest.
A particular feature of the new set which I’ve really enjoyed is the arrangement of the sonatas upon each of the fourteen discs. Houstoun tells us in the accompanying booklet notes that back in the 1990s he initially resisted the idea of interfering with the published order of the works – so, by way of preparing them for his first public performance of the cycle he would play them through repeatedly “in order”. He gradually came to feel that in concert something different was needed, and so he devised seven programs, all of which featured sonatas from the composer’s different compositional periods. This proved so successful, that when it came time to repeat the cycle in 2013 the pianist made no changes to his “recital order”.
That same order is replicated on these new CDs, each of the seven recital programmes being allocated two discs. It makes for uncommonly satisfying listening, whether one decides to play any single CD or replicate any of the original recital programs. Unlike the “one-period-at-a-time” grouping of the sonatas in the previous Trust recordings, this newer project justly reflects the “holistic” way with which Houstoun conceived the undertaking right from the outset. To be fair, that first Trust set of the “Middle Period” sonatas was at the time a ground-breaking flagship venture, by no means assured of continuance after the first issue – so it was deemed necessary for each step to have a more “stand-alone” aspect.
How things have changed! – to the point where a new recording by Houstoun featuring all thirty-two of the sonatas was deemed not only possible but necessary! And how wonderful to have such a closely-associated sound-reminiscence of those actual recital programmes performed up and down the land during 2013! So, when one turns to Programme One, on the set’s first two discs, one can begin that amazing journey all over again, with the pianist as a skilled and insightful guide. The thoughtfulness of Houstoun’s approach can be gleaned by his choice of the D Major Sonata Op.10 No.3 as the opening work, because, as he puts it “of its wonderful Largo”, what he goes on to call “Beethoven’s first truly great slow movement”.
Which brings me to mention of another of the new set’s qualities – its reproduction of the pianist’s own commentaries from the notes accompanying the live recitals, illuminating and enhancing our appreciation of what we hear at almost every turn. This was also a feature of the Trust issues, though Houstoun has rewritten these in accord with his “latest thoughts” – invariably the message is the same but worded differently, often more simply, as with the “refreshed” note about the “Waldstein” Sonata. (I do regret the omission of a footnote to the earlier set’s remarks about the E-flat Op.81a Sonata, usually subtitled “Les Adieux”, one which nicely made the point that Beethoven wanted his own description “Das Lebewohl” used in the published edition – in the new set, the traditional French subtitle stands at the head of the note once more, as if to say “Oh, well….”).
But the stylish, sturdily-bound booklet has much more – there’s a detailed, fluently-written biography of Houstoun penned by Charlotte Wilson, a true celebration of the pianist’s life and career, her account properly inclusive of all the people whose influence made a difference to the pianist’s life-course, as well as being revealingly candid in places (for example, I found the portrait of Houstoun’s relationship with his father somewhat chilling). Obviously written for local consumption (it has an engagingly first-name-parochial style), the essay provides an exhilarating, but nicely-balanced account of a remarkable career, one which, by dint of both success and setback through injury, has had its ups and downs, and emerged all the stronger.
Booklet and discs are beautifully and securely encased, with everything conveniently accessible, as per Rattle’s usual attractive standards of presentation – there’s a time-line of the pianist’s career for quick reference, a discography, and numerous photographs, both from different stages of Houstoun’s life and from his two Beethoven cycle recital series (the later ones in colour). Decorating both booklet and discs is detail from a painting by Christchurch-based artist Philip Trusttum, helping to give the issue a strongly-flavoured, uncompromisingly abstracted home-grown feel, which suits the enterprise perfectly.
As for this review, it’s obvious that to do full and detailed justice to Houstoun’s playing of the whole cycle would require a lengthy treatise that might take longer to read than it would the pianist to play through the music! But I thought that, in the midst of the inevitable generalities an examination of one of these “programmes” would give the reader something of a sense of its specific flavour, and an idea of the range and scope of the whole. With these objectives in mind I decided I would examine the first of them, and sneak in veiled references to other individual sonatas along the way of things, as opportunities “crop up” to do so.
So, Programme One! – it begins with a hiss and a roar, as the opening declamation of Op.10 No.3 exuberantly announces its presence as would a character in an opera buffa. The music is a kind of comedy overture, replete with spontaneous energies, extravagant gestures, sly asides, quizzical looks and enigmatic smiles – and, while Houstoun isn’t a nudge-wink Shura Cherkassky kind of performer, his playing suggests something of this tumbling warmth and po-faced humour, with plenty of dynamic variation and flexibility of phrasing. As one might expect he gives the “wonderful Largo” full measure, exchanging the comic mask for a deeply tragic one, and making the most of sequences like the wonderful ascending triplet passage which then tightens the screws on the tensions towards the conclusion, before breaking off and returning to the opening “stasis of sorrow” that frames the movement. The strength of his playing leaves a relatively dry-eyed impression at the movement’s end, but that’s in keeping with making coherent what’s still to come, the “tragedy to the mind and a comedy to the intellect” idea supported by the playfulness of both Menuetto and Finale. What marvellous music it is!
Then comes the first of the two “Fantasy-Sonatas” of Op.27 (the other one being the “Moonlight”, of course), here played and phrased a shade coolly at the outset, tempering its early romanticism, perhaps in deference to its more famous companion – though Houstoun revealingly muses in his notes that, for him, “Beethoven hasn’t quite made up his mind what to do” – and the touch of abruptness at the beginning certainly supports that view. Later in the Sonata Houstoun’s playing is less equivocal, for instance, giving full measure to the “held” chord that connects the scherzo with the heavenly-voiced third-movement adagio. In places like this one admires the connectiveness of the artist’s thinking about and playing of the music.
The bright, chirpy opening of the E Major Op.14 No.1 Sonata does emphasize the recording’s touch of dryness, though better this than too “swimmy” an acoustic – I like the slightly questioning air Houstoun brings to the first movement’s repeated ascending chromatic phrase, one whose delivery I find here more quizzical than the pianist’s description of “unsettling”, but certainly in consistent accord with what happens throughout. There’s a flexibility of response that to me suggests greater ease and circumspection than was the case with the more tightly-wound Trust performance. Something of the severity of Beethoven’s previous sonata, the “Pathetique”, does come across in Houstoun’s way with the Allegretto middle movement, a sense of sombre ritual, nicely “warmed” by the pianist during the major-key trio. But what a tour-de-force is his playing of the triplet-dominated finale, capturing the music’s “rolling-down-the-hill” exuberance and moments of quirky harmonic exploration in one fell swoop – a most exhilarating first-half closer!
An interval of sorts comes with a change of CD for the recital’s second half, opening with the Op.26 A-flat Sonata – a work which Houstoun describes as a “new beginning” for the composer’s use of sonata-form, one containing both a theme-and-variations movement, and a funeral march! The opening is the theme, resplendent and rich in its A-flat finery, to which Houstoun brings a fine nobility, before gently teasing out the variations, none of which are of the showy, flashy variety – though perhaps the last of them, with its more filigree aspect, sounds a tad more self-conscious than the rest. (Beethoven ushers it demurely out of sight at the end via a brief coda!)
Houstoun has always done well with this particular sonata, achieving miracles of finely-gradated touch in the scherzo, while relishing the music’s syncopated accents. But when it comes to the Funeral March movement, I have to say I prefer the pianist’s more expansive tempo on the earlier Trust recording. Compared with the newer, sterner reading, the former sounds more inwardly-felt, with the playing supported by a warmer and slightly more giving acoustic. This is especially noticeable in the drum-roll sequences, which, on the new Rattle recording convey to me a more dispassionate, almost abstracted impression – perhaps Houstoun was concerned that anything more theatrical and dramatic in manner might, as he put it in his notes, “sound meretricious”. Fortunately, the finale restores the music/listener relationship to a more even keel once again, Houstoun nicely realizing for us the babble of the semiquaver voices as they collect, intensify, dissipate, and then finally disappear, as abruptly as they first appeared.
Already these two discs have taken us on quite a musical journey, so to have the “Waldstein” Sonata at the recital’s end is akin to experiencing a kind of homecoming – I remember the live concerts consistently supporting that sense of completion in different ways, depending upon the works involved in the various traversals. With sonatas such as Programme Two’s Op.101 in A (No.28), Programme Five’s Op 109 in E (No.30) and Programme Six’s Op.110 in A-flat (No.31), the sense of “return” at their conclusion I found very strong and satisfying, in complete contrast to the programs that left one in wondrously transfigured worlds from which one gradually found one’s own way back afterwards! – such were Programme Three’s “Hammerklavier”, Programme Four’s “Appassionata” and (despite an overall sense of grand summation) the final programme’s stellar Op.111 – all far-reaching conclusions!
So it is, here – Houstoun’s way with the “Waldstein”, instantly engaging, nevertheless has a grand cumulative effect, proceeding from the brightly-alert opening pulsations and their contrasting lyrical counterweights to a rigorous engagement between the two in a working-out section, standpoints that are steadfastly restated at the recapitulation of the opening, but quite gloriously “worked out” by the time the movement’s concluding musings and final flourish come upon us. The deep-throated “song of the earth” that follows is beautifully voiced, the spaces as eloquently shaped as the notes, our progress through the void led instinctively to that matchless moment of impulse when the light from a single note points the way forward.
The way Houstoun takes us through all of this is an art that conceals art, one which repays the closest attention in kind. Though one feels the inevitability of the pianist’s conception throughout, there’s still an “in situ” chemistry of engagement that transfixes every moment – it’s a quality that I’ve come to associate with Houstoun, that he can persuade you of the rightness of his interpretation at the time of listening, even when, in retrospect, you might find you prefer what you’ve heard others do. Here in the Waldstein, there’s no doubt that a kind of greatness is at work, as each of the work’s episodes is characterized so strongly and sharply – one doesn’t think of isolating any particular sequence, but instead, of simply “going with the flow” and reflecting on life’s richness and diversity when the music finally leaves off.
Others that stand out for me among these recorded performances are those programme-concluding works I’ve already mentioned – and, of course, that’s the way any kind of assemblage works best, like the Biblical wine for the guests at the marriage-feast at Cana, where the “best” was also kept to last! Each of those works speak for themselves, in a sense, though it would be true to say that they show Houstoun’s playing at his most inspired, the music’s greatness matched by the pianist’s response accordingly. It would be wrong of me to make much of one performance at the expense of others, but I thought Houstoun’s playing of the “Appassionata”, as in the recital (Programme Four), some of the most remarkably abandoned pianism I’ve ever heard from him (the playing literally brought the Wellington Town Hall audience to its feet!).
At the spectrum’s other end, of course, is the final sonata’s concluding Arietta movement – surely one of the most remarkable, inter-galactic acts of creation ever devised by a human being – while my allegiance to the young Daniel Barenboim’s first EMI recording of this work as a “desert-island choice” remains unshaken, Houstoun’s performance is a “thinking-man’s alternative” to the likes of the more visceral, spontaneous-sounding Barenboim. And, in any case, from the beginnings of those trilled murmurings after the near-manic “boogie-woogie” variation has subsided, Houstoun “has me in thrall” right to the piece’s end, as overwhelmingly as any. Yes, I know it’s supposedly all in the music, and the performer is merely the conduit through which it passes – but that’s a superficial observation. It DOES make a difference who’s sitting at the piano – and with Michael Houstoun there, that difference has its own precious distinction.
By any standards this new set is a wondrous achievement from all concerned.
Peter Mechen, Middle-C
Connoisseurs know the existence of an important pianist, and great Beethoven interpreter, living in New Zealand. Houstoun’s complete Beethoven piano sonata recordings made in the 1990s, while not available here in the USA, nevertheless revealed clear insight and power to those who managed to listen to them. Now the new versions have arrived, and they are gorgeous. Let me speak of the sound qualities first. Congratulations to the recording engineers for producing the most splendid and accurate piano sound in a Beethoven sonata set so far. Piano on CD can sound slightly strident, fuzzy, or muddy. Comparing the Houstoun set on CD with the SACD layer of another set reveals no sonic advantages whatsoever for the latter. Also, other interpretations suffer from uneven recorded volume going from sonata to sonata and from movement to movement, but not here: everything is totally natural.
And now to the musical and interpretive advantages of Houstoun’s new Beethoven sonata set. It is simply phenomenal! An immensely intelligent reading that is honest, and without phony pyrotechnics. Passion and virtuosity in the early sonatas, weight and power in the middle-period sonatas, and penetrating wisdom coupled with elegant solutions to the tremendous technical difficulties put in place by the composer in the late sonatas. I only offer one comparison with a recent recording, and that is the one by András Schiff. Not to rank the two, but I wish to include them as two sets recorded by two of the world’s greatest living pianists who focus their formidable interpretive skills on producing Beethoven as he meant his music to be played. Curiously, Houstoun and Schiff crossed paths at the Leeds Piano Festival in 1975, when they won 4th and 3rd places, respectively.
A brief note to condemn the major global record labels, which promote ageing “stars” by indulging them in recording yet another complete Beethoven sonata set (their third or fourth). But their interpretations tend to be just as unsatisfactory this time around as they were forty years ago. At the same time, those same labels promote the latest “genius” youngsters, who either dazzle us with technique while massacring poor Beethoven, or play perfectly in a perfectly dull manner. It’s all driven by marketing hype. For years I have been supporting musicians by buying from small independent recording labels, which is where innovation and artistic truth are most often found. Several fine pianists have brought out complete Beethoven sonata sets in the past decade or two, yet almost none match Houstoun on interpretation (or on sound quality).
As far as past masters are concerned, there is an affinity with Claudio Arrau, whom I adore, but Houstoun triumphs by showing playfulness and humor where needed, which the older pianist sometimes lacked. After hearing Houstoun’s set over and over, and having it grow on me every time, I began to recollect something special: a feeling of perfection, an interpretation from the past that went beyond the score’s limitations, which tried to connect to what Beethoven himself was desperately trying to grasp. Solomon! That’s the pianist Houstoun approaches the most, in my mind, without imitating him at all. The utter tranquility even during the most flamboyantly pianistic passages that Solomon brought to the Beethoven sonatas is there in Houstoun’s playing. It’s simply magic. An astonishing technique put to service in bringing out the intensity and purity of the music.
This set of CDs represents an event of national importance for New Zealand, created by one of the country’s living national treasures. Nevertheless, Houstoun did live for a while in Texas and elsewhere in the USA. In addition, Houstoun’s story of overcoming focal dystonia (a condition that has struck many musicians, not only pianists, and including this reviewer) to resume his stalled career is deeply moving. I welcome the chance to discuss the broader musical value of this release independently as a foreigner.
It was Beethoven who woke me up to myself as a musician. The thing about Beethoven is that he somehow synthesises human psychological truths, with all of their subtlety and all of their range, into music. One of the remarkable things about this cycle is that Beethoven never repeats himself, not once. He could always work on several pieces at the same time and yet they could have unbelievably contrasting psychological, spiritual, emotional contents – from something as bright and joyous and incredible as the Waldstein, for instance, to the Appassionata, which is about as dark as it gets. And then, everything he identifies in those pieces is somehow true, so that human beings when they hear them are constantly acknowledging themselves as they listen. Beethoven tells you about yourself. The even more astonishing thing about these sonatas is that when he wrote most of them he was already deaf. So he wrote always beyond the instrument. This is the music in his ears. They are difficult, there is something virtuosic about all of them, even the so-called ‘easy’ ones. That’s because he was ahead of his time, and because when he was young, he was the best pianist in the world. He would have outplayed everybody else on the planet. And he always asked for extreme sonorities as well.
There are some things – like the octave glissandi in the last movement of the Waldstein, or Op 111 where he takes your hands out to the absolute extremes pianissimo trills up the top – he does ask for things that are almost impossible. However you can see that they are driven by such totally musical necessity that you do everything you possibly can to try to make them work. It’s a remarkable thing for me to play these sonatas again, and it was a remarkable thing the first time around. I think I measured myself with that then, and I’ll be measuring myself with it again now. This time it’s a different experience, because I’m older, and music is a whole different world for me than it was 20 years ago. I think I’m a more natural musician than I was before. I’m much more relaxed, and more in tune with the sonorities of the instrument. I still love clarity, people have always said to me that my playing is clear, and I think that’s important – clarity allows the audience to choose for themselves what they want out of the music. For me, I’ll be even less inclined to impose myself on the music, and to impose my own ideas. What is important is sincerity, and not getting in the way, and being true to the instrument. I’m just going to practise, and play. And see what happens.