REVIEW: Michael Houston Beethoven reCycle 2013 Nelson School of Music Tuesday, August 20, 7.30pm
To celebrate his 60th birthday, Michael Houston decided to tour New Zealand and play the complete piano sonatas of Beethoven.
He did this 20 years ago when he was 40, but this is in no way a repetition. Houston has changed. Far from mellowing, he brings an incredible energy and deeper self-expression to the music. He has lived longer than Beethoven did, and from his youth has memorised these sonatas. He has a profound affinity with the composer, and the technical skill and physical stamina to communicate Beethoven's intentions.
This is the fourth of seven programmes, deliberately ordered by Houston to reveal Beethoven's unflagging optimistic spirit, his rule-breaking defiance and his deep sadness. No other composer so clearly draws out the sub-conscious - the inner conflict between proving oneself to the world, and resigning oneself to being alone and misunderstood.
Sonata No 20 in G Op 49 was simple and youthful, full of buoyant optimism and clarity of rhythm. The second, Sonata No 3 in C, was dedicated to Beethoven's teacher, Joseph Haydn. This was a revelation to me. Full of dramatic excitement and explosive left-hand notes, played just as Beethoven intended, with vigour and surprise. The slow movement started with such pathos and developed into anger and frustration - the emotions of 22-year-old Beethoven struggling to make a name for himself in the aristocratic circles of Vienna. The final movement was cheeky. Houston expressed this joyful abandon with precision and total sincerity.
He needed to take a short break before playing the quite different Sonata No 24 in F Sharp, dedicated to Countess Therese von Brunsvik - a gentler work, perhaps a psychological portrait of the woman he admired.
The fourth, Sonata No 16 in G Op 31, was another of Beethoven's youthful works in which he breaks the rules, playing offbeat rhythms with an almost drunken defiance. He explores the deep resonance of the left hand, returning to the more extrovert melody in triplets. A very different sort of waltz portraying a torrent of feeling and Beethoven's inevitable humiliation with the onset of his deafness.
Everything seemed to lead towards the final sonata, the Apassionata in the key of F minor.
Houston paused to muster his energy to communicate Beethoven's oft-repeated theme - death knocking at the door - an almost unbearable baring of the heart with offbeat rhythms, huge climaxes and inner torment overplayed with heroic melody. Thunderous fortissimos fading to gentle futility, and rising defiantly again.
The audience was overwhelmed and gave a standing ovation.
Never have I heard such unanimous and heartfelt applause, and humble Houston gave a dignified bow.
A remarkable concert by New Zealand's most revered pianist.
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