Review: Michael Houstoun – Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations” (Town Hall Concert Chamber – 15/10/2012)

I first heard Michael Houstoun in recital in 1984. It seems like a long time ago but the memory of that recital is clear – a gifted pianist of technical skill and interpretative ability. New Zealand audiences have been lucky that such an artist has been a regular part of the concert scene and given us many memorable performances. So it was not unexpected that the Town Hall Concert Chamber was almost full last evening.

It is slightly difficult to believe that he’s about to celebrate his 60th birthday and Chamber Music New Zealand should be applauded for letting us share these celebrations which will continue into next year with a ‘recycle’ of the Beethoven piano sonatas which he originally performed nearly twenty years ago. And we the audience receive the birthday treat now – a special recital series of Beethoven’s “Diabelli Variations”.

For those not familiar with the work, Diabelli’s waltz itself is an unremarkable piece, mechanical and repetitive. One could easily wonder why you would want to bother with it, but Diabelli’s original project in 1819 was to collate variations from many famous composers of the day including Beethoven. Liszt, Schubert and Czerny all made contributions but Beethoven initially thought little of it. It is said that Diabelli and Beethoven met and Beethoven asked Diabelli how many contributions he had received. When Diabelli said that he had received 32, Beethoven told him to go ahead and publish them without his contribution – he was going to write 33 himself !

Beethoven did manage to compose 23 variations before putting the manuscript aside for about four years. In that time, he completed the Missa solemnis and his late piano sonatas. What triggered him to revive these variations is not clear, but he added a further ten more with revisions to some of the earlier variations and expanded the end of the piece.

Beethoven’s final set of 33 variations are remarkable for the breadth and variation of their tone, harmony, structure and emotion. At a moment, you can detect a throwback to the classical sonata form, then German Dances, then reflections of past sonatas (and the Fourth Piano Concerto). In the next moment, a glance at the coming age towards harmony and structure that Liszt or Chopin would use. It is no wonder that the great Alfred Brendel has been quoted as saying that this is the greatest of all piano works.

Houstoun understands Beethoven – if we didn’t know that after watching a brief film of Michael in his studio talking about the composer (well done, Bill McCarthy), we were left in no doubt after the performance. His knowledge of the complete Beethoven piano sonatas and concerti was put to excellent use as the Variations themselves feel like a compressed version of all of Beethoven’s oeuvres for the piano and more. Houstoun conveyed the power, grace and humour within Beethoven beautifully, without exaggeration and with clarity – it was a memorable and utterly captivating performance.

Happy birthday, Michael – may there be many more to come !

About TI

TI is based in Auckland, New Zealand. TI's somewhat eclectic interests include (but are certainly not limited to) legal humour (the law can be funny), good wine, the search for the best possible chocolate, alcoholic beverages, travel, commercial aircraft, photography, weird news stories and classical music.
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