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Michael Houstoun conquers the Everest of piano concertos.

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

Auckland Philharmonia

Auckland Town Hall

Houstoun Plays Rachmaninov

March 23

Conductor Vincent Hardaker
Piano Michael Houstoun

Maria Grenfell Stealing Tutunui
Vaughan Williams Symphony No.5
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No.3

Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto is often referred to as the Everest of piano concertos because of its monumentality. The metaphor can be extended to the pianist themselves and their struggle to dominate the work. Just as the climber moves progressively up the mountain, encountering crevasses, snowstorms and avalanches before the final assault, so too does the pianist struggle with the demands of the concerto.

Michael Houstoun’ s appearance with the APO this week was probably one of his last and playing the Rachmaninov would have been a challenge he has been wanting to undertake for some time.

He has written about the work saying  “This concerto is famously huge with enormous numbers of notes, requiring not just dexterity but also real strength and stamina. Rachmaninov’s piano writing is so brilliant and sublime though that it does not really seem like work. The beautiful melodies and rich harmonies, the wonderful surging structures – all the elements put together make it one of the very greatest of piano concertos.”

After an unsuccessful performance of the work in Wellington last year due to technical issues Michael Houstoun was like the climber having a second attempt at reaching the summit, probably motivated to make the supreme effort.  

The concerto consists of the two, often competing forces of the pianist and orchestra as they explore the works intense Romanticism, its modernist introspection and an ever-present Russian melancholy.

Houstoun’s performance was spectacular. There was no hint that he was daunted by the work, playing with confidence and assurance in front of a packed Auckland Town Hall. This was a cerebral performance with a focus on his technique and his attempts to illuminate Rachmaninov’s multi-layered themes. He ensured that he was in control with a combination of power, poetry and speed, mastering the themes and variations, the big complex chords, thundering octaves and surging phrases. Throughout the concerto’s most difficult and intricate movements he provided an electrifying display of keyboard virtuosity.

At times he became the great showman with his almost frenetic playing which was as dramatic as that of the orchestra. At times his playing seems to glide over the sounds of the orchestra and at others he seemed to be searching for his melody before weaving into the orchestral sounds

The orchestra under conductor Vincent Hardaker played their part in providing the monumental sounds which accompany the soloist through to the furious sounds of the dramatic conclusion.

Where the Rachmaninov was distinctly Russian the other large work on the programme, the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony was distinctly English. Written thirty years after the Rachmaninov this work with its pastoral  Romanticism was  a gentle, melodic and uplifting work .Despite its apparent  lightness  it was an  elaborate and sophisticated piece, elegantly controlled by conductor Hardaker.

The other work on the programme was New Zealander Maria Grenfell’s tone poem “Stealing Tutunui”  which she describes as recounting the Māori legend about a chief, his pet whale, and a duplicitous priest.

The various instruments notably the harp woodwinds and brass created what might be a day in the life of a forest with music of birdsong, atmospheric incidents and small dramatic events.  From the opening joyous sounds, the music  rose to a tumult of sounds of an approaching storm or premonition. Grenfell displays an ability to utilise the orchestras instruments to create sounds which combine the exotic and the natural brilliantly.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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