Thursday night's Houstoun Plays Rachmaninov inevitably focused on New Zealand's most loved, respected and revered pianist, making his final appearance with Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra.
Yet magic was afoot from the first woodwind flurries of Maria Grenfell's Stealing Tutunui.
The New Zealand composer's setting of this Māori legend was brilliantly orchestrated, its ear-pleasing lushness offset by subtle rhythmic and textural play.
Having brought Grenfell's scenario vividly to life, conductor Vincent Hardaker was impressive in a solid symphonic challenge: Vaughan Williams' Fifth Symphony of 1943, dedicated without permission to Sibelius, offering wartime Britain spiritual sustenance.
The APO's excellent strings fuelled both momentum and body, especially in Hardaker's rhapsodic first movement weave and the radiant organ-like sonorities of the "Romanza," evoking the world of the composer's Tallis Fantasia.
A mighty passacaglia finale seemed to hint at celebrations to come after interval.
Earlier this year Michael Houstoun described Rachmaninov's third concerto as a work of stamina and strength that was also dark and deeply explorative.
All of this was effortlessly achieved with the pianist's customary composure; melancholy was beautifully measured out in his opening theme and, later, Rachmaninov's melodies sparkled, diamond-like, in surging washes of virtuosity.
Many pianists have commented on the intense theatrical qualities of this work; and Houstoun together with Hardaker and his orchestra made a fine team. Many musical sighs were superbly finessed in a well-sustained emotional narrative. One highlight came after a thundering cadenza, when the pianist accompanied orchestral soloists as if in a chamber music concert.
The orchestra was exemplary, doubtless inspired by decades of close association with its soloist. Sculpted woodwind sonorities set the mood of the "Intermezzo" to perfection while fuller forces made for a rip-roaring race through the final pages.
Houstoun's powerhouse chords during this section returned, in more reflective surroundings, in his generous and thoughtful encore, the third of Rachmaninov's Etudes Tableaux. After numerous curtain calls, the pianist took his final bow, blowing a kiss to the audience.