Two lockdowns have scuttled so many planned tributes during Beethoven's 250th anniversary year, but Michael Houstoun has achieved the extraordinary — a Beethoven Birthday Concert on the actual day itself.
Throughout, one felt an air of collaboration across centuries, as the pianist's much-deserved mana is very much bound up with this music. Not only has he twice recorded the composer's complete sonatas but, in 1994, he made history by touring these works nationally.
Tonight, we were thrust, without warning, into a storm-tossed Opus 10 No 3, a few moments of nervousness adding the drama of vulnerability. Volatile humour would break through later but the high point was its soul-searching Largo, in which the weight of every note, chord and silence was rendered with absolute authority.
In his pithy, whimsical programme notes, Houstoun described the Opus 119 Bagatelles as snapshots from Beethoven's vast repertoire of subtle moods — vividly brought to life by this mercurial musician.
Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata is celebrated for the mind-melting and finger-tangling demands of its titanic first movement and furious fugal finale. Tonight, singling out its 19-minute slow movement, Houstoun gave us an alternative glimpse of genius, undertaking its daring harmonic and textural wanderings as if they were glorious improvisations. Little surprise that 15 seconds of hushed awe preceded another burst of vociferous applause.
The final Waldstein Sonata was given a performance totally in keeping with the pianist's admiration of its compositional perfection. The architecture of it opening movement was unerringly laid out, its final rondo zestily morphing from music box tinklings to leonine roars. In between, a short Adagio molto seemed to ask questions that extended far beyond the limitations of notes on paper.
After Houstoun's effortless contrapuntal ripple in a Bach encore, fellow pianist Rae de Lisle summed up his special talent — a man of understatement and great humility whose performance is never about him as the artist, but always about the composer.
What: Michael Houstoun: The Beethoven Birthday Concert
Where: Town Hall Concert Chamber
Reviewer: William Dart