Michael Houstoun



Michael Houstoun 

Michael Houstoun's second release on Rattle in 2017, following the exceptional tour de force of Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, is a selection of personal favourites from the repertoire of French piano music. Trois is an album of absolutely beautiful music, and features the work of Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, and Francis Poulenc.  


Produced by Kenneth Young
Recorded by Steve Garden
Piano tuning by Michael Ashby
Cover photograph To Tango by Irene Miller
Design by UnkleFranc
Printing by Studio Q


RAT-D075 (October, 2017)






Maurice Ravel

01  i. Modéré  (0:52)
02  ii. Mouvement de Menuet  (0:52)
03  iii. Animé  (0:52)


Erik Satie
04  Gymnopédie No. 1  (0:52)
05  Gnossienne No. 1  (0:52)


Claude Debussy
Images oubliées

06  i. Lent  (0:52)
07  ii. Sarabande  (0:52)
08  iii. Très vite  (0:52)


Erik Satie
09  Gymnopédie No. 2   (0:52)
10  Gnossienne No. 2  (0:52)


Gabriel Fauré
Nocturne Op.33

11  i. E-flat Minor  (0:52)
12  ii. B Major  (0:52)
13  iii. A-flat Major  (0:52)


Erik Satie
14  Gymnopédie No. 3  (0:52)
15  Gnossienne No. 3  (0:52)


Francis Poulenc
Trois novelettes

16  No. 1 in C Major, Modéré sans lenteur  (0:52)
17  No. 2 in B-flat Minor, Très rapide et rythme  (0:52)
18  No. 3 in E Minor, Andantino tranquillo  (0:52)


Gabriel Fauré
19  Impromptu No. 2 in F Minor/Major, Opus 31 (0:52)
20  Barcarolle No. 1 in A Minor, Opus 26  (0:52)
21  Valse-Caprice No. 1 in A Major, Opus 30  (0:52)


      Total playing time: 85:37


liner notes


Kenneth Young on TROIS


Trois was conceived as a result of Michael Houstoun recording the three movements of Maurice Ravel’s Sonatine, which led him to consider other groups of three by French composers—hence the collection of works assembled here. Having had the privilege and pleasure to produce Michael’s recording of the complete Beethoven Piano Sonatas, I was keen to assist him as he embraced an assorted collection of French repertoire, certain that it would be a rewarding endeavour.

I am particularly fond of French piano literature. It provided the formative musical and aesthetic influences of my early years following a chance first encounter with Claude Debussy. My piano tutor at the time, the fine jazz pianist Bob Bradford, was playing a piece as I arrived for a lesson. I had heard nothing like it before (I was 15 at the time), but after hearing La Cathedrale Engloutie my life was changed.

What I most admire about Michael’s musical artistry is his integrity towards the music and, as a result, the composer. The clarity of line he brings to each of the pieces on Trois ironically stems from his approach to Beethoven. He has an understanding of inherent counterpoint, a subtle sense of harmonic blend, no overwrought rubato or excessive sustaining pedal, and he adheres to indicted tempi and their gradations. Michael allows the composer and his music to speak for themselves, rather than ‘enhancing’ the work for his or our benefit.

Debussy abhorred those who would ‘cloud’ his music with their impressionism; a term he hated when applied to his own music. The nature of Gabriel Fauré’s piano writing demands clarity. Francis Poulenc’s favourite composer was Mozart, so the manner in which one ought to approach his music is self-evident, while the seminal early jottings of Erik Satie are simplicity itself.

Ravel wrote the first movement of his Sonatine in 1903 in response to a competition sponsored by the fine arts and literary magazine, Weekly Critical Review. The second and third movements were composed in 1905. The complete work was dedicated to his good friends Ida and Cipa Godebski and can be seen as a homage to the elegance and structure of the 18th century claveciniste composers, especially Couperin and Rameau, to whom Ravel felt spiritually connected.

The three Gymnopédie were written by Satie in 1888. Much conjecture remains about the origin of the title. Satie himself maintained that he was influenced by Flaubert’s 1862 novel Salammbo which was set in Carthage during the 3rd Century B.C. Gymnopédie appears as an infrequently used word in 19th century France however my guess is that Satie was referring to the meaning included in Jacques Rousseau’s Dictionnaire de musique, published in 1775, where a Gymnopedie was described as an air or chant to which young females from the ancient Greek city of Lacedaemon danced nude.

There are also varying theories about the origin of the title Gnossienne, however, it would seem that Satie's coining of the word was one of the rare occasions when a composer used a new term to indicate a new "type" of composition. After all, this is the same man who gave his works such colourful titles as Desiccated Embryos and Shabby Preludes for a Dog!

In 1894, 32-year-old Debussy was in the middle of writing his one and only opera Pelléas et Mélisande. To relieve the occasional struggles with such a project (and to earn urgently needed money) Debussy wrote piano pieces. The Images oubliées represent the first use of the generic title that was to become so characteristic of him. The middle Sarabande was first published in an arts magazine in 1896 and would eventually become the second movement of his Pour le Piano (with small but significant changes.) The complete set of three movements had to wait until 1977 for publication.

This is Debussy flexing his compositional muscles, forging a path towards the mature piano works of his later years. He dedicated the manuscript to Yvonne, the 17-year-old daughter of his good friend, the painter Henri Lerolle. Renoir also did a portrait of her at the piano.

Fauré wrote thirteen Nocturnes between 1875 and 1921. They occupy a prime position in the composer’s oeuvre and are generally regarded as Fauré’s greatest piano works. They are inspired by the works of Chopin with Fauré quite happy to compose in forms and patterns established by the earlier composer. In the case of the Nocturnes this meant contrasting serene outer sections with livelier and sometimes more turbulent central episodes.

They are not, as the title might suggest, based on emotions inspired by the night. Rather, the Nocturnes represent some of Fauré’s most lyrical and impassioned utterances. The Opus 33 set presented here was written between 1875 and 1882.

Poulenc produced admirable large-scale works, but he also excelled as a miniaturist. He wrote hundreds of wonderful songs and piano pieces, many of which are spontaneous and genial vignettes that often include dedications to friends and acquaintances. Such is the case with his Trois novelettes.

The first, with its Mozartian melody and contrasting central section, is dedicated to Virginie Lienard, a family friend whom Poulenc affectionately refers to as ‘ma tante Lienard.’ The second is dedicated to his friend, music critic Louis Laloy, and the third (based on the 7/8 theme from Manuel de Falla’s El amor brujo>/em>) is dedicated to his close friend, R. Douglas Gibson. Poulenc premiered the first two pieces in 1928. However, the third movement wasn’t written until 1959.

Although not a three-movement work, the final pieces in this collection represent examples of three forms Faure was prolific in during his career. He wrote six Impromptus, the second of which maintains an airy tarantella rhythm with an admirable lightness off texture.

Like the Nocturnes, the thirteen Barcarolles span nearly the whole of Fauré’s composing career. The early pieces have an uncomplicated charm, while the later works reflect a more withdrawn and enigmatic quality. Fauré was ambidextrous and this is evident in many of his piano works, a good example being the first Barcarolle where in the opening theme the main melodic line is heard in the middle register, with the accompaniments in the high treble as well as the bass.

He would also frequently share the melodic line between the two hands in order to accommodate the extended register of his accompanying textures. This is illustrated at the opening of the first Valse-Caprice written in 1882. The spirit of Chopin is very much to the fore in this scintillating and playful work.


Kenneth Young, September 2017





Michael Houstoun



Michael Houstoun is New Zealand’s most respected and acclaimed classical musician. His commitment to excellence and enthusiasm for the work of contemporary New Zealand composers has seen his path cross with Rattle's numerous times, and has resulted in many of our finest releases.

Michael became interested in the piano when he was a small child and began lessons at the age of 5, and by the age of 18 had won every major competition in New Zealand. He performed abroad for almost a decade before following his heart back home in 1981, where he has lived and worked ever since. He plays from a large repertoire that stretches from JS Bach to the present day, including 40 concertos and chamber music. A strong advocate of New Zealand music, works from Douglas Lilburn to John Psathas regularly feature in his programmes. During the 1990s he concentrated on the music of Beethoven, playing the complete sonatas in five cycles around NZ. He has recorded the cycle twice, most recently in 2013 with Rattle, for which he was awarded the 2014 Classical Album of the Year.

In late 2015 Michael recorded another cherished programme of Beethoven, the great Diabelli Variations. It is a stunning performance, beautifully captured by Rattle's in-house engineer Steve Garden, and produced with great concentration and perception by Kenneth Young. This recording was followed by TROIS, a selection of some of Michael's favourite French piano music, featuring works by Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie, Claude Debussy, Gabrielk Fauré, and Francis Poulenc.

Michael, Steve, and Ken have enjoyed a very fruitful recording partnership since they first worked together on the award-winning INLAND in 2007. They picked up the Best Classical Album Award again in 2012 for LILBURN (a programme of Michael's favourite pieces selected from Douglas Lilburn's piano music), but their most ambitious and widely-acclaimed project was of course the monumental 14-CD set of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas.

Visit Michael Houstoun's website here






To Tango by Irene Miller



A self-taught European-born fine art photographer, Irene Miller lives in an 1857 log cabin near Stratford, Ontario. She is a lover of poetry, martinis, and dance, and her photography is regularly collected by art enthusiasts worldwide.

Visit Irene's website here








What a pleasure it is to hear Michael Houstoun relaxing in this collection of French music, just months after the triumph of his Diabelli Variations.


The title of the new disc, Trois, is explained by producer Kenneth Young, taking on liner note duties; the three movements of Ravel's opening Sonatine inspired the pianist to create similar sets of pieces from works by four other French composers.


Erik Satie (1866-1925) scores six tracks. His well-known three Gymnopedies, played with unexpected but effective deliberation, are each paired with one of his gnarlier Gnossiennes. Spread throughout the album, they're like sweet and bitter sorbets between courses in a classy degustation.


Houstoun can't resist giving Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) a double inning. First up, three Nocturnes are launched with evanescent dreams in E flat minor; a later set of three, lightened with a dash of the salon, features a Barcarolle that's really a closet waltz.


The Sonatine of Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) is relatively familiar repertoire and here Houstoun is the epitome of cool, even when catching what the composer described as the deep curtsy ending the minuet movement.


Three Images oubliees by Claude Debussy (1862-1918) are curiosities, unpublished until 1977. The sonic wizardry of Steve Garden ensures harmonic luxuriance and Houstoun has a romp when the composer dallies wittily with an innocent French nursery rhyme.


If you're hankering for a touch of C major, the first of Poulenc's Trois Novelettes offers just that, until the harmonies start to wander . . . deliciously. Houstoun guides us with just the right degree of suave nonchalance, but be prepared for hijinks to come, when the second piece lets loose with a 95-second blast of surrealist music hall.


Rating: 5/5


William Dart, November 2017







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