Michael Houstoun Inspired by ‘Inspired by Bach’

New ZealandNew Zealand Bach, Harris, Lilburn, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Liszt: Michael Houstoun (piano). Forum North, Whangarei, New Zealand. 3.10.2015 (Pse)

J.S. Bach Partita No. 1, BWV825
Ross Harris Fugue (for piano)
Lilburn Chaconne
arr. Rachmaninov Suite from Violin Partita in E
Shostakovich Prelude and Fugue, Op. 87 No. 24
arr. LisztFantasy and Fugue in G minor

For those of us living “in the sticks”, a visit from a world-class act is a rare treat indeed. So, Whangarei’s classical aficionados must have wondered what’d hit them when, less than a week after welcoming the pearl of Kiwi symphony orchestras, they found themselves putting their hands together for the doyen of NZ’s pianists! In this, the fourth recital of Whangarei Music Society’s 2015 season, no less than Michael Houstoun riveted his audience with a programme on the theme “Inspired by Bach”.

Every “unjustly neglected” composer has his enthusiastic supporters (those who don’t are simply “forgotten”). Bach was an “unjustly neglected” composer until a century or so after his death, when his enthusiastic supporters, including such as Mendelssohn, began to drag his reputation out of the doldrums. This renaissance was so successful that nowadays many, if not most, folk put Bach at the very top of the tree (pun entirely intentional!), which must be a great encouragement to present-day enthusiastic supporters.

Yet, even while Bach was as unfashionable as last week’s designer gear, his works continued to influence a fair number of composers (including Beethoven). As his reputation grew, so his influence expanded, gradually becoming phenomenally far-reaching and pervasive – particularly if you start including composers who weren’t directly influenced by Bach, but by other composers who were. Consequently, anyone planning an “Inspired by Bach” programme will suffer a surfeit of riches – a big help if the programme was to be spread over a dozen concerts, but far from it if there’s just the one.

For Michael (I can call him “Michael”, because I’m somewhat less young than he is!), being limited to solo piano music made the task a little less daunting, but I bet it nevertheless took a good deal of sifting and sorting. His astute choice managed to cover several angles in just six items. And what a neat idea it was, to set the scene with the Partita No. 1, BWV 825, arguably Bach’s own very first keyboard work. Since Bach’s favoured harpsichord didn’t “do” loud and soft, there was no point in him marking any dynamics, so he didn’t. Hence pianists have to decide for themselves what sounds “right”. Michael’s middle ground, expressive but not indulgent, sounded absolutely spot on to me – as did his tempi, stately in such as the Sarabande, but in the jollier dances avoiding old-school sluggishness like the plague.

Kiwi composer Ross Harris had written his Fugue (for piano) especially for this programme. He intended to “smuggle into an impressionistic soundscape three fugue subjects”. However, whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the piece per se, I couldn’t quite square it with the theme. For one thing, the highly fragmentary, angular nature of the materials effectively hid the smuggled subjects from prying ears, and for another, Harris’s declared Bach inspiration – which I’d imagined would be substantiated in some unequivocal fuguing – seemed somehow to get lost in the impressionistic wash.

Bach was Lilburn’s favourite composer, although it’s debatable whether Bach directly inspired Lilburn’s Chaconne. However, it’s another, entirely valid angle which, along with 2015 being Lilburn’s centenary, struck me as ample reason for including it. By anybody’s standards, the Chaconne is unapologetically virtuosic, astonishingly accomplished and gripping music, a garden teeming with delights ranging from tender to torrential, from sombre to sparkling, from sedate to downright playful. It packed an awful lot of superstructure onto its ground-bass. Michael played it with consummate command and electrifying energy – his performance was a tour de force to match the music itself. It sent Lilburn’s Chaconne straight to the top of my “wants list” of recordings.

The second half featured two transcriptions of Bach pieces, starting with Rachmaninov’s Suite from the Violin Partita in E and ending on Liszt’s Fantasy and Fugue in G minor. Both composers took plenty of liberties, moderated with a modicum of respect, cheerfully filling out and anachronistically spicing up Bach’s originals. These at once transformed them into virtuoso piano showpieces and, possibly unwittingly, double-underlined the sheer “bullet-proof” quality of Bach’s musical character. The way that Michael tackled them – almost as a natural extension of his approach to the Partita No. 1 – made me wonder: if Bach had been a Romantic, would he have written music like this? Probably not, but it’s fun to speculate.

In between came something truly (madly, deeply?) inspired by Bach. In 1950, after hearing Tatiana Nikolayeva’s performance of Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues, Shostakovich was so fired up that he promptly set to and composed his own 24 Preludes and Fugues, Op. 87. Michael’s mesmerising performance of No. 24 elucidated the music’s captivating dichotomy, that  every single bar is indisputably and entirely “Shostakovich”, and that every single bar, suffused with the spirit of Bach, glows with the intensity of his inspiration.

By way of summing up this performance, let me tell you a little tale. I once attended a recital given, in Huddersfield Town Hall, by the legendary Arthur Rubinstein. It went like this: for each piece he came on, bowed deeply, sat down, played some music, got up, smiled slightly, bowed deeply, and went off. That was it. There was none of this swaying and swooning, no gazing heavenwards, no weeping over the keys, no wracked expressions of angst and ecstasy, extravagant or otherwise. He simply sat there and played, focusing everything on making music. And it was utterly unforgettable. Now, if you were to ask me how Michael Houstoun played, I’d reply, “Pretty much like Arthur Rubinstein.” Enough said?

Paul Serotsky


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