Author Topic: Michael Houstoun Plays Beethoven, Take 1  (Read 145 times)

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Offline Todd

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Michael Houstoun Plays Beethoven, Take 1
« on: March 03, 2018, 08:11:54 AM »

It took a good long while - since early 2005 when I caught the LvB sonata cycle bug - but I've finally arrived at the destination of my personal journey: I possess a copy of all but one single-pianist complete cycle available to the public since I started my journey.  To be sure, I do not possess a copy of every cycle - some disappeared and have never been reissued (eg, Michael Steinberg) and some have never been issued on CD (eg, Robert Riefling) - and I knowingly dropped the ball on Shoko Sugitani's cycle (the but one), though I expect it to be reissued in 2020 or 2027.  Now, I just have to keep up with complete cycles when they appear.  In the case of this, Michael Houstoun's first complete cycle, recorded for Morrison Trust, I have some prior experience.  Many moons ago I purchased the last volume devoted to the late sonatas as MP3 downloads and listened few times, but I foolishly did not back up the hard drive the files were stored on, so I lost the files, and I misplaced the burned MP3-to-WAV converted CD-Rs, so I ended up rebuying the set.  I decided to go the MP3 route for this complete cycle because only three of the sets are available in physical media form, and then only at high prices.  I was able to purchase the MP3 files from a boutique vendor named Amazon, which also keeps the files stored on AWS, so now I will not have to worry about losing the files.  I actually didn't have to buy the set as Amazon makes the whole cycle available for streaming, and this may very well be available for streaming on other services, but I wanted to possess my own set so I can use the files on any device, or transfer to optical disc or flash memory and listen without being online.  It also will make extensive A/Bs with Houstoun's later Rattle cycle handy in the event I want to do extensive A/Bs.  In any event, it was time to listen to the last cycle I will buy for a (short) while.  I write that with full knowledge that Llŷr Williams’ cycle will be released in about a month’s time (at the time of writing), that Yoshihiro Kondo is only one disc away from completing his cycle, and that other complete cycles may drop at any time, as with Martin Rasch's.

Starting in with the Op 2 sonatas, Houstoun starts in on the first sonata with a fast, pointed, very energetic, and lean sounding Allegro.  The playing is high on excitement but not so high on subtlety.  Houstoun keeps the Adagio fairly snappy, and the Menuetto is filled with hints of fire.  The Prestissimo is basically a combination of speed and fire in one of the most intense versions played by mortals.  (Annie Fischer arguably goes further, but as she is a saint, there's no need to compare.)  An outstanding opener.  The second sonata starts off with a lean, energetic Allegro vivace.  Houstoun plays with nice clarity, and while his left hand playing is by no means anemic, the right hand dominates, cutting through to reach one's ears.  The Largo is played at a slow tempo, though it's far from sluggish, though it doesn't go too deep, instead maintaining a more classical reserve.  The Scherzo is light and playful in the outer sections and nicely fiery in the middle section, while the Rondo is light, bright, and energetic with the middle section again forceful and fiery.  The third sonata opens brisk and light, and then Houstoun plays the second section with blistering speed and maybe too compressed dynamics (and it's not just the recording).  Or not.  The playing is not subtle, but it demands attention.  It's virtuosic showboating and muscle-flexing.  The slow, tense Adagio moves forward with a grinding sense of inevitability, which the potent but not thundering left hand tolling notes reinforces.  It hints at middle period Beethoven.  The Scherzo is all high-speed forward momentum in the outer sections and almost the same, in a forcefully lyrical way, in the middle section.  The sonata ends with an Allegro assai possessed of no little energy and unyielding forward drive, though Houstoun never plays it too heavy.  And excellent first disc.

The second disc is devoted to the Op 10 trio.  Houstoun opens the first sonata with a very fast overall Allegro molto e con brio with blazing fast ascending arpeggios, generating ample excitement, and he never really lets up in what is a borderline relentless opener.  Relentless can be good.  Houstoun plays the Adagio molto at slow tempo, maintains a nice bit of tension, and hammers out some passages.  The somewhat metallic tone prevents the playing from sounding really lovely, but it's attractive.  The Finale is very much like the opening movement, though it calls into question whether the first movement itself was actually Prestissimo.  The second sonata starts with another very fast movement, with the Allegro sounding very Presto or Prestissimo, and while Houstoun does not play the music with too much power or speed, its lightness is presented with a sort of humorous aggression.  That's meant as praise.  The Allegretto is suitably slower, but sounds slightly labored and exaggerated, obviously for effect.  The Presto, with repeat, is predictably fast and energetic and fun, though not light.  In Op 10/3, Houstoun starts off by playing the Presto at a very brisk pace, and he makes sure to deliver left hand accents with some bite.  Right hand accents, too.  He just rocks right through the movement.  Houstoun backs way off in the Largo, playing the opening of the movement in very slow, dramatic fashion, and taking 11'07 to do the whole thing.  Houstoun takes his time with much of the music, building slowly to the climax.  The Menuetto is more relaxed and flowing in the outer sections, and more forceful in the middle with a blunt transition.  The work closes with a Rondo that sounds suitably light and fun to start, but which also finds Houstoun playing with not a little muscle in some sections.  He delivers a strong Op 10 trio.  Here I decided to do an A/B with Houstoun's later recording when doing the first listen.  The Rattle cycle is in much better sound, and not just because of the difference between MP3 and proper 16 bit.  Houstoun's tone is richer, darker, and bigger.  The Presto takes about eight seconds longer in this take, and it doesn't sound as forcefully driven, with Houstoun sounding more comfortable and flexible.  There is greater clarity of voices, as well.  In the later Largo, Houstoun shaves off nearly a minute from the timing, and the music starts off and remains both slightly tenser and more tonally attractive, though it never sounds beautiful just to sound beautiful.  (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)  As in the first recording, Houstoun takes his time building up to the climax, and with the much fuller sounding bass, it ends up sounding more dramatic in the buildup but perhaps not as comparatively satisfying at the destination, though this is a nitpicking critique.  As in the first movement, the timings are a few seconds slower in both the Menuetto and Rondo, and both sound more tonally attractive and flexible in delivery.  Both versions are very well done, with more fire and energy in the early recording, and more weight and clarity and flexibility in the later recording.  In this instance, I prefer the latter just a bit, but clearly it's best to have both versions.

The third disc in the volume starts off with the Op 49 sonatas.  Both are a bit more firm and assertive than average, yet Houstoun doesn't crush the works, and he backs off a bit in the outer sections of the second movement of the second sonata.  Op 7 follows.  Here, Houstoun plays with a nice forward drive, though nothing too hasty, and he peppers his playing with near bone-crunching fortissimo chords on more than a few occasions.  The Largo ends up sounding much the same, only slower.  Houstoun keeps up the assertive playing in the Allegro, with a middle section that fairly growls.  The Rondo is pretty leisurely much of the time, and flows nicely enough in much of the outer sections, but even in those sections Houstoun plays with some real oomph, and the middle section he breathes musical fire.  The recording is certainly long on excitement, but a bit short on subtlety.  The Pathétique ends the first trio of discs.  Houstoun starts the somewhat quick and tense Grave with a weighty and dark opening chord before adding a bit more bite to some of the playing.  The Allegro di molto e con brio is a no foolin' around, high speed, high voltage affair, with heavy, repeated left hand accents and rubato used to rush things along a bit more, and the loudest ffff near the end is deliciously ear-splitting.  Houstoun plays the Adagio cantabile in more restrained fashion, naturally enough, and even plays with a nice cantabile style, but even in this movement he adds dashes of strength and tension.  The concluding Rondo is fast, potent, with not a little cutting right hand playing.  This is another excitement over subtlety interpretation, but it works quite well here, thank you. 

The fourth disc contains three youthful ditties starting with the Op 14 sonatas.  The Op 14 sonata is light in demeanor but beefy in delivery, with some industrial strength left-hand arpeggios in the first movement and some effective and contained rubato in the final movement, while the slow movement is serious and formal.  It's not great, but's it's very proper and entertaining.  The second Op 14 sonata starts with an Allegro that adds a bit of lyricism to Houstoun's speedy, powerful playing, moves to a second movement Andante theme and variations characterized by steady rhythm and some poke-in-the-ribs sforzandi, and concludes with a super-zippy Scherzo.  The Op 22 sonata starts with an Allegro con brio displaying constant forward motion, clean articulation, lots of oomph, and even more energy.  Houstoun backs off in the Adagio.  He keeps it tense, and he plays a few passages with power, but it is mostly lyrical and serious.  The middle section adds a bit of subdued drama to the mix.  The Menuetto is plucky in the outer sections while the middle is predictably fiery.  The Rondo has plenty of energy, but Houstoun also puts his stamp on it with some personal rubato and some nearly gooey legato for a few phrases.  They're little details, and they work nicely.  And, quite expectedly, he plays the middle section with intensity and extra-speedy playing.  It's a splendid version of the early sonata presented in an unabashedly extroverted manner. 

Disc five is devoted to the critical Op 31 trio.  Houstoun opens the Allegro vivace with unlimited vivace, and while he does play some passages with slight halts, this is a high energy take with oodles of energy and Houstoun is not afraid to belt out passages.  The Adagio grazioso is taken at a relaxed sounding 10'18", and Houstoun deploys some mock clumsy and/or stuttering playing to superb effect, and his trills and runs sound quite excellent.  The middle section has cleaner playing underpinned by an almost machine-like consistency from the left hand and perfectly judged sforzandi from the right, and near the end Houstoun growls out the bass trills.  Good stuff.  The Rondo starts off lyrical, but quickly becomes more boisterous and fun.  Houstoun plays with wonderful clarity of voices, sometimes making the bass line dominate, and sometimes making the right hand sound almost spontaneous.  This is one of the highlights of the cycle.  Since this sonata is one of the highlights of the Rattle cycle as well, I decided to do an A/B here.  The Allegro vivace comes in twenty seconds slower than the first recording, and this allows Houstoun to play each note in runs with greater clarity, and he imparts a sense of mock-clumsiness to some of the playing in this movement, underpinned by weightier bass.  It's more leisurely fun.  The Adagio grazioso comes in at only three seconds longer than the earlier version, but the opening sounds notably slower and more relaxed and lovelier, and rather lazy, but all to the good.  The trills are more deliberate but more lovely, and as the piece progresses, some playing becomes clumsier yet.  Though the tone is richer and weightier, the playing is lighter throughout, and the right hand playing is sort of ethereal at times, while the greater bass in the recording helps deliver really nifty bass trills near the end.  The Rondo, taken on its own, is energetic and fun, but in comparison to the earlier recording it sounds less relentlessly energetic and more flowing and warm and fun.  I marginally prefer the latter recording, but it is clear that Houstoun has this sonata dialed in.  In Der Sturm, Houstoun opens the Largo with slower than normal playing of some reserve.  He then launches into an Allegro characterized by bite and intensity.  The contrasts might be slightly exaggerated, but that only helps.  The Adagio is slow and mostly calm and reserved.  Houstoun plays some passages with oomph, and the overall effect is quite nice.  The Allegretto opens sounding somewhat like a searing yet lyrical lament, moves to more fiery playing, and then goes back and forth at a steady tempo to the end.  Excellent.  In the third sonata, Houstoun opens the Allegro in slow and restrained style, and it's not until the development that he picks up the pace.  Even then the playing is not especially fast, though it does display wit and verve enough to satisfy.  The Scherzo moves along at a nice clip, with nice dynamic swings, pokey bass, and humorous outbursts.  Houstoun plays the outer sections of the Menuetto in quite serious fashion, and with not a little pianistic loveliness, while the middle section is a bit more tumultuous.  He closes out with a Presto con fuoco played with plenty of drive and energy and fun, yet the overall sonata is not up to the level as the first two.  Still, he delivers an excellent overall Op 31 trio.

Disc six opens with the Waldstein.  Houstoun opens the Allegro con brio fast and quiet, doing pianissimo right, and then proceeds to play the louder music that follows with a nice degree of energy and speed.  The fastest passages are not crazy fast, and some of the slower music has more of a poetic, touching sound to it.  It's not all barnstorming.  The Introduzione is slow, somber, introspective, and morose.  It's in the spirit of the middle movement of Les Adieux.  Nice.  The concluding Rondo starts off with Houstoun again doing a fine job playing pianissimo, then he trills his way to boisterous, potent playing, with some chords belted out with a nice degree of forcefulness.  It may not be the subtlest way to do it, but it's quite good.  There's an at times quite celebratory feel, and the coda is both potent and happy.  Op 90 follows.  Houstoun is not shy about belting out the loud chords or playing the quieter music with a sense of anguish or the runs with a sense of urgency.  No soft or transcendent near-late LvB here, just a satisfyingly tense take.  The second movement is mostly flowing and lyrical, though Houstoun doesn't completely shake some sharper loud playing.  It works very well, and it indicates that the pianist might be able to deliver some hard-hitting Schubert were he so inclined.  Next is the second of the sonatas quasi una fantasia.  The Adagio sostenuto is slow, steady, and darkly hued; the Allegretto is weighty and rich with a somewhat forcefully yet gently rocking rhythm; and the Presto agitato, fortified by at times nicely weighty bass and piercing right hand sforzandi, rumbles right on through to the end.  Rock solid.  For whatever reason, the metadata for the set names 27/1 Der Vampyr, its über-obscure nickname.  The disc closer starts off with a slightly brisk, lovely Andante, moves to a not too fast but nicely pointed Allegro, which rolls into an Allegro molto e vivace that is not particularly fast but which displays nice dynamic contrasts and weight, and ends with a hefty coda.  Houstoun then moves to an Adagio con espressione of not a little beauty, which then, via metallic trills and a slow fade out, transitions to an Allegro vivace of some drive and oomph and nice dynamic contrasts, which more or less is expected at this point, and he ends with a hyperfast coda.  Another excellent performance.

Disc seven starts with the Appassionata.  Houstoun starts quiet and tense, and you just know what's coming.  His incisive playing, rhythmic drive, and power, with ample left hand weight, all make their appearance in the Allegro assai.  Houstoun doesn't play the movement especially fast, instead opting to slow way down in the slow music to maximize contrasts with the climaxes.  There's something so appealing about his cutting, almost harsh style that it invites one to turn the volume up a bit too much.  The Andante theme is presented in a weighty, somewhat stately fashion, and the variations never stray far from that, though sometimes there's an appealing nervousness that creeps in, and the final arpeggio stings the ear.  Houstoun then predictably starts the Allegro ma non troppo — Presto with ample drive and energy, but a somewhat restrained volume, only to let loose as the movement progresses, at just the right times, and in just the right amount – a lot.  This is a cutting, grinding, intense closing movement.  Given that this sonata is one of the highlights of Houstoun's Rattle set, it's not surprising that this earlier, more youthful version kicks ass.  Next up is Op 26.  He starts the piece off with a nice Andante theme and variations, with the Andante less stately than in the preceding Op 57, but then he makes it a point to play each variation as a distinct entity, spicing up the proceedings with either steady left hand playing or pointed left hand sforzandi, to excellent effect.  The Scherzo is predictably fast and weighty and makes for a perfect bridge to the funeral march.  Houstoun starts it off slow, almost to the point of exaggeration, though of the effective sort.  It adds hints of drama.  The solemnity and reserve married to the power makes it heroic.  (It kind of makes me wonder what Houstoun could do with a piano reduction of Siegfried's Funeral March.)  The concluding Allegro is dispatched with enough verve and relative lightness to make for a nice closer.  Op 54 closes the disc.  The minuet first theme is played with not a little loveliness, but one listens to Houstoun for the stabbing staccato, and he delivers in the triplets theme, playing like a pianistic pile-driver.  (The playing again invites louder than normal volume.)  The second movement is of the fast, but sane fast, variety, with plenty of oomph when and where appropriate.  Very fine.

The eighth disc opens with Op 28.  Houstoun plays the opening Allegro at a very Adagio pace to start and except for the more intense middle section and the extended right hand quaver passages, he keeps it slow through to the end.  The Andante, on the other hand, is fairly brisk, with a firm but not overbearing staccato married to lyricism in a mostly quasi-intense, sometimes actually intense fashion, though the middle section sounds fun.  The Scherzo is faster yet, with ample energy, with the middle even more so.  The concluding Rondo has a nice blend of elements, with enough lyricism and intensity in the right places.  The too slow opening movement aside, everything in the sonata is nice enough on its own, yet it doesn't jell for me.  Les Adieux follows.  Houstoun starts off with a dynamically wide ranging, at times introspective, at times extroverted reading.  The second movement is forlorn, with both restrained passages and outbursts, and here and there Houstoun seems to shorten some note values, though the device works.  The final movement is largely celebratory, with a few passages that sound a bit stiff, and ample bright right hand playing.  Op 78 comes next, and here Houstoun scales up the piece a bit, making the opening movement sound almost like an extension of the Waldstein, and he turbo charges the Allegro vivace.  Op 79 closes out the disc.  Houstoun turbo charges the Presto alla tedesca, as well, zooming through it, though he gives the acciaccatura some love.  He then plays the Andante with some real musical weight, almost turning it into a miniaturized Op 106 Adagio.  The piece ends with a light and fun Vivace.  Very nice.  I like when a pianist delivers on the possibilities of this little gem.

The last two discs cover the last five sonatas, and this is the second copy of MP3s I had to buy since I never properly backed up the prior purchase and the files disappeared when the hard drive I kept the single copy on died.  Op 101 starts off with an attractive Allegretto ma non troppo, and one that is sort of midway between a middle period approach and a more transcendent approach.  The march is fast and incisive, with Houstoun finding reserves to go just that little bit louder when he's already playing loudly.  The Adagio is attractive and slow, though I wouldn't have minded a bit smoother legato, but what's there is quite nice.  The final movement is fast, clean, and displays more of Houstoun's powerful playing.  It sounds more middle period than late, but the excitement factor is undeniable.  The Hammerklavier opens with a slow, almost twelve minute Allegro.  What it lacks in speed it makes up for in quasi-orchestral scale, though not color.  Houstoun's forte and fortissimo playing is satisfying, with some right hand notes sharp and tart, but the quieter playing is a bit less satisfying, and the movement does start to drag a bit in the last quartet despite the high wattage playing.  The Scherzo is a high wattage, high excitement take.  The Adagio, at over twenty minutes, is a long one, and right from the start, Houstoun imparts a sense of sorrow.  As the movement slowly unfolds, Houstoun ratchets up the intensity in some passages, and does an estimable job creating a cold, desolate sound and feel, and he peppers most of the rest of the movement with these last two approaches until the coda, which he extends out very nicely.  The final movement starts with a somewhat quick sounding Largo, a quicker Allegro, and then after thundering chords and quickly dispatched trills moves to a quick, but not super-fast fugue, where Houstoun plays with admirable clarity.  Again, the excitement factor is quite high throughout, the quasi-baroque passage excepted.  Overall, it's quite good.

Houstoun opens the Vivace of Op 109 at a nicely brisk clip, and in adequately subdued overall feel, and then ratchets up volume in the Adagio section nicely, then alternates between the styles.  The edge and power in his playing render it more middle-period sounding, or at least like tetchy late Beethoven.  The Prestissimo is unsurprisingly powerful and pretty quick moving, though it seems more about momentum than sheer speed.  The final movement opens with a nicely restrained and lyrical Andante theme that certainly sounds like elevated, transcendent late Beethoven.  The first variation keeps up the same feel and presents the sonic illusion of being slower.  The second variation starts with dry, pointed playing that points to the "little stars" of Op 111, then moves to more animated playing.  The fastest playing in the third variation is more like a Presto vivace than Allegro vivace, and in the fourth variation Houstoun keeps the playing elevated.  The fifth variation is mostly middle period fiery, and the concluding variation returns to the opening material nicely.  Op 110 starts with a Moderato cantabile molto espressivo on the verge of not being moderate tempo-wise at times, though Houstoun keeps it satisfactorily lyrical, and the left hand playing dominates the proceedings at times with a sort of natural inevitability, and it is close to the degree of transcendence I prefer.  Houstoun largely muscles his way through the Allegro molto, which is just fine.  The final movement is split into two tracks here, with the first containing the first arioso.  Houstoun plays it somberly and in suitably elevated fashion before moving to the serious fugue, which sounds processional at first, before building up in speed and intensity.  The second arioso is much like the first, and it ends with repeated chords that build up nicely, though they are not played as powerfully as one would expect going in; instead, Houstoun offers a sort of hypnotic, processional, quite slow take on the chords.  The inverted fugue starts off slow and quiet, unfurling nicely as it proceeds, ending in a potent coda.  Op 111 opens with a weighty, cutting Maestoso and moves to an Allegro con brio ed appassionato of the powerful and fast variety, with especially pointed left hand sforzandi audible from time to time.  Houstoun follows the intense opener with a very slow second movement that tops twenty minutes.  He starts off with a very slow Arietta which only gets slower in the second half.  It doesn't really sound transcendent so much as it just sounds slow.  The first variation improves things a bit, though it remains quite slow, too.  Things perk up a bit in the second variation, and a lot in the third, which the pianist delivers with much weight and drive.  The rest of the sonata approaches a transcendent sound, with attractive if sort of brash "little stars" and some swelling dynamics that sort of dwarf some surrounding music.  The chains of trills are nicely dispatched, and finally in the coda one hears hints of musical Elysium. 

The pianist himself noted in the comments to his second cycle on Rattle that he had matured and developed a bigger, richer sonority, and that his interpretations evolved.  That's certainly the truth.  These two cycles offer a clear glimpse into the evolution of a pianist's style over one or two decades, and much more so than some other pianists have offered - Backhaus and Kempff, for instance, don't differ nearly as much in their late career styles - with probably the change in Barenboim's style over his three cycles being a closer analog.  The younger Houstoun excels where speed and power and scale rule - Op 57, for instance.  He generates ample excitement in many places, sometimes maybe a bit too much.  His later cycle, which is a bit slower, though not by much, sounds richer and more flexible.  He allows himself room to breathe.  I didn't do a full A/B, and I doubt I ever do, but ultimately I'd call it something of a draw.  Younger Houstoun is probably a bit better earlier on and in the big middle works where older Houstoun is better in the later sonatas and the smaller works.  The second cycle is in better sound, though this is probably exaggerated slightly due to the difference in format.  The relative overall qualitative equality means that this cycle is third tier, possibly high third tier, and the best performances here really can withstand comparison to Big Names.  Obviously, for me, hearing the cycle was imperative, though I'd steer newcomers to the pianist’s new cycle. 

This cycle makes a nice quasi-ending point for me.  I'm done with complete cycles until a new one drops or one of the rare as hens' teeth cycles (eg, Riefling, Steinberg, Kladetzky, Varinska) pop up used in good condition. 
The universe is change; life is opinion.   Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Offline Gurn Blanston

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Re: Michael Houstoun Plays Beethoven, Take 1
« Reply #1 on: March 03, 2018, 08:22:33 AM »
Nice survey, Todd. A player I never heard of, like so many you have done. It is satisfactory to reach a point like this in such a huge undertaking. Congratulations, well done! :)

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