On track: Sound knowledge of music heritage

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Michael Houstoun's advocacy of New Zealand music has been a path carefully forged over the last decade.

For this pianist, it is an advantage of staying in this country and he searches out local composers - preferably people he knows.

This is the message spelt out in the booklet for Inland, Houstoun's double-CD set from Rattle Records, introducing a veritable panorama of New Zealand piano music.

The tradition is acknowledged with the first track, Douglas Lilburn's 1946 Chaconne, a mighty kauri of a score inspired by the West Coast landscape. Rugged harmonies and dazzling virtuosics seem to catch the gleaming clarity of nature.

Six shortish pieces by Kenneth Young complete the first disc; extremely approachable music which runs from questioning toccata to Dutilleux-like mists.

Last week, talking on Radio New Zealand Concert about Chopin interpretation, Houstoun stressed the ever-changing nature of emotional states, an element that he brings out magnificently in Young's final piece, Catharsis.

The second disc is more flagrantly physical. Gao Ping's Dance Fury salutes tango master Astor Piazzolla, and Houstoun drives this volatile score through clangorous climaxes to interludes in which imaginary dancers relax between their exertions.

The heady, lingering atmosphere of Victoria Kelly's Landscape Prelude is intoxicating enough to make one overlook the fact that pianist Stephen De Pledge has not been credited with its original commission.

John Psathas' Jettatura is a frenetic workout that tests pianist and engineer Steve Garden; both come out with shining colours.

The final selection of 12 miniatures by Mike Nock take a walk on the jazz side. Ballads are followed by Bachian toccata and sometimes there is a whiff of New Age sensibilities to it. Although Nock's language seems pastel alongside some of the bold primaries elsewhere, Houstoun delivers the closing Serenity with the sincerity and tonal translucence that are his signature.

In 1997, Rattle produced Dan Poynton's epoch-defining piano collection, You Hit Him He Cry Out; 10 years on, Houstoun's Inland is the perfect update.

* Michael Houstoun, Inland (Rattle Records RAT D-016)

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