This concert was prefaced by a short film of Michael Houstoun speaking about Beethoven and his experiences with the composer’s music. He movingly recounted his first encounter with Beethoven, the Appassionata Sonata recorded by Arthur Rubinstein, and how it first inspired a lifelong love and affinity. It was this love and affinity that was clearly on show during the following scintillating performance of the Diabelli Variations, the piece he had chosen to perform as a way of celebrating his 60th birthday.

Michael Houston © Sal Criscillo
Michael Houston
© Sal Criscillo

Houstoun has impeccable credentials as a Beethoven pianist; his cycle of the sonatas in the 1990s is the stuff of legend in New Zealand music circles. My most recent encounter with his Beethoven has been his stunning DVD recordings of the last three piano sonatas, almost impeccably accurate with just the right grasp of structure, in the monumental Op. 111 sonata in particular. Based on this, I was expecting a lot from his Diabelli Variations and by and large, I wasn’t disappointed.

One of Beethoven’s last published pieces for solo piano, this set of variations is based around a rather banal and inconsequential waltz by Anton Diabelli. Diabelli originally commissioned many of the best-known composers of the day to compose a single variation each, but Beethoven eventually responded by writing a large set of 33 variations by himself. The original theme is transformed radically, almost beyond recognition. Alfred Brendel declared the Diabelli Variations to be “the greatest of all piano works” and it is hard to disagree when faced with the sheer imagination and subtlety employed by Beethoven in crafting whole variations out of the smallest elements of the theme.

What is most cherishable about Houstoun’s interpretation is his strong grasp of the overriding structure of the piece. It was a performance strongly anchored by the theme despite Beethoven’s wandering through some very disparate ideas – each variation followed logically from the one before. The underlying humorous aspects of the piece were well judged, the theme itself being played with just the right touch of glib insouciance. Houstoun also injected the right note of mock heroism to the pompous march that is Variation 1. Variation 22 reworks the waltz as a parody of Leporello’s opening “Notte e giorno faticar” aria from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – this was teased out with sly wit.

Speeds on the whole were very fleet, but barring a few awkward hand-crosses, Houstoun achieved a sense of effortless virtuosity in even the most difficult variations. He is at his best when the piece calls for crisp rhythmic articulation, revelling in the trills and broken octaves in Variation 16. There was hardly a smudged note (barring a slightly wayward diminished seventh cadenza in Variation 21) and every arpeggio and grace note sounded very clearly even from the rear of the auditorium. In this he was certainly aided by the wonderful acoustics of the Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber.

For me, the highlight of the work was Variation 31, which I normally hear as a tribute to Bach’s slow movements. In this performance however, there was an almost proto-Chopin nocturne feel about it, particularly at the flowing speed Houstoun chose. It also strongly recalled the Arietta from Beethoven’s own Op. 111 sonata, which Houstoun recorded for DVD so successfully. The triple fugue in Variation 32 was wonderfully conveyed, each part skilfully differentiated and yet ideally balanced, with the repeated notes of the subject phrased with more variety than seemed possible. This movement brought the work to a powerful climax and was followed up by a gentle account of the concluding minuet that brought Haydn and Mozart’s influences to the fore.

My only real caveat is that I found that some of the variations were just too fast. A good example is the usually hypnotically slow chords in Variation 20, which went by too quickly to make any real impact. The speed also adversely affected the humorous impression of Variation 13 – at Houstoun’s speed the long silences weren’t long enough to be funny. Houstoun employed the pedal judiciously; only a slight blurring in the final minuet seemed overdone.

The programme was fairly short measure (there was no encore), but with music making of this quality it’s hard to complain. Chamber Music New Zealand has recently announced that Houstoun will be touring the country next year with a full cycle of the Beethoven piano sonatas. He noted in the opening film that he was curious to see how his interpretations of the sonatas have changed since his landmark series 20 years ago – this listener is very excited to find out as well.

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