Composers are often drawn to the musical equivalent of the challenge that faced Jesus feeding the multitude. Most of Bach's Art of Fugue was wrought from a mere 12-note theme and Beethoven famously created 33 variations on one innocuous little waltz by Anton Diabelli.
On Monday evening, Michael Houstoun took up another formidable challenge: playing this Beethoven masterpiece.
Presented by Chamber Music New Zealand as part of the pianist's 60th birthday celebrations, there was nostalgia as well as a preview of Houstoun's 2013 Beethoven cycle, in a short introductory film by Bill McCarthy.
On screen, the pianist remembered his first "solar plexus experience" hearing Rubinstein play Beethoven and was fascinated by stories of the composer's skill at drawing psychological musical portraits - which was the key to the success of the performance to follow.
With Houstoun, each variation had its individual character.
The first fitted very well with Alfred Brendel's playful description of it as a gladiator flexing his muscles; after this, the mesmerising chord shuffle of the second took the breath away.
Brendel's whimsical title for this variation is "Snowflakes"; Houstoun's imaginative take was as much impressionistic as classical.
Yet, when clarity of line was called for, the pianist was punctilious, as in Variation 4, until the spirit of the dance took over in the cadential rush.
Houstoun could conjure up an orchestra when required, as in the coda-like outburst of Variation 10; within a page he was pursuing the subtle voicings and textural play of trailing triplets.
Virtuosity is a given with this man.
There were two magnificent storms in Variations 17 and 18, with more to come, five variations later. In between, we had a Variation 20 presented with a hushed reverence appropriate to Brendel's vision of it as an "inner sanctum".
The highlight for me was the glorious Siciliana of Variation 31, gracefully suspended over implacable harmonies, in which Houstoun seemed to acknowledge the tribute to Haydn as well as the inevitable Bach.
Houstoun's birthday celebrations go nationwide this Saturday evening, when Radio New Zealand Concert broadcasts this Auckland performance.
Not to be missed.
Who: Michael Houstoun
Where: Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber