5 Sep 2017

Christchurch Arts Festival has flair

From Upbeat, 1:40 pm on 5 September 2017

The Christchurch Arts Festival is underway bringing the city’s creative streak to the fore. Reviewer Tony Ryan has attended a few events, including the Michael Houstoun /Bella Hristova Beethoven mini festival and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra’s performance under cellist / director Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt.

Michael Houstoun

Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Michael Houston / Bella Hristova – Beethoven complete Sonatas for Piano and Violin

Reviewed by: Tony Ryan

I’m a bit hesitant to say anything about these recitals because a couple of weeks ago there was feature in The Press here in Christchurch which quoted Michael Houstoun from his own website as saying that he has stopped posting reviews of his performances. The article stated that his last post in that regard is his own withering review on reviewers – "A vehicle for exercising the various neuroses of disaffected, underpaid men …".

When I checked his website, I found that he’d prefaced his reviews page with a couple of very amusing quotes about critics from Dr Johnson and Franz Liszt. But it’s just as easy to find positive quotes about the value of criticism. For example, Norman Vincent Peale, known for his best-selling book on positive thinking, said “The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

Maybe musicians are a little bit neurotic themselves; Richard Strauss even wrote famous music about critics in his symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben.

The other perspective is that Beethoven, for example, wrote his music for me, the listener, even more perhaps, than for the performer. So as a listener I feel that I have as much right to respond to what makes the music work for, or communicate to me as the performer does. Every performer’s interpretation of a given work is different, so is one better or more faithful to the composer’s intentions than another? When I go to a concert I really want it to be good; and if a performance doesn’t work for me, I try to analyse why, and that’s what I then say in my reviews. If it does work for me, then I say that too and, after all, I’d never pretend that it’s anything but my own personal response. I think it’s important to say what I believe are problems with a performance as well as what works well.

I will make a couple of personal observations about this series of Beethoven piano and violin recitals.

The first concert featured two early sonatas and two on the brink of Beethoven’s great so-called middle period. I have always felt that these earlier Violin and Piano Sonatas don’t make quite the same impact that even the earliest of the solo piano sonatas do, but on Friday night the originality and greatness of the two Op.30 pieces really jumped out at me in a way that they haven’t previously.

In the main, both players let the music speak for itself without the interpretive subjectivity that one gets from some musicians, although Michael Houstoun does subtly highlight the music’s contrasts, especially in the variation movements, more than Bella Hristova. Picking just one movement from the whole first concert, the slow movement of the 2nd Op. 30 Sonata in C minor was simply magical. Houstoun led with a sort of indefinable way of drawing our attention to the harmonic surprise of the second chord, without at all over-egging it, so that it’s emotional impact set the tone for the whole movement. I don’t think that Hristova showed quite the same awareness of harmonic detail, but the two players certainly worked with superb rapport – And these sonatas really are duos; there’s no hint, at any time, of the violin being “the soloist”, or of the piano being just accompaniment.

On Saturday, the second concert in the series began with one of the most famous and popular of these sonatas, the Spring Sonata, and, although it’s still a relatively early work, the first movement opens with one of Beethoven’s most sumptuously beautiful themes. And, once again, Houstoun and Hristova played it without over-emphasising its lyricism or harmonic richness. Anyone familiar with, say, Anne-Sophie Mutter’s performances may find Houstoun and Hristova rather plain by comparison. Mutter and her like-minded pianist, Lambert Orkis, can draw you into every bar of that opening of the Spring Sonata with a heart-aching quality that tells us how to feel. They make more of the dynamic and articulation contrasts than Beethoven actually wrote. But left to speak for itself, in the manner of Houstoun and Hristova, I think we get more of the sense of the joy of nature that we know was so important to Beethoven.

The final concert in the series featured the three remaining sonatas, including the most famous of all, the Kreutzer. And although it’s still a work just bordering on Beethoven’s middle-period maturity, Houstoun and Hristova’s assured performance left us in no doubt of it being one of the composer’s great masterpieces. Both in length and in its virtuosic demands, it’s a work of enormous emotional and intellectual reach, and on Sunday evening we were given a performance of such confidence and brilliance that it’s no wonder the audience was on its feet at the conclusion of this superb series.

Christchurch Symphony Orchestra

On top of this Beethoven series, Saturday night also featured a Christchurch Symphony concert.

In the past, I’ve lamented the small number of strings that this orchestra sometimes uses, and my heart sank when I counted the names in the programme for this concert. But, as it turned out, the smaller ensemble suited the chosen music, and it certainly suited the conductor’s approach.

The opening of Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture felt a little lethargic at first, but it soon gathered momentum. It also gave us a first taste of Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt’s ability to draw energy and punch from the orchestra, and this was further demonstrated in Haydn’s brilliant C Major Cello Concerto where Schmidt was also the dynamic soloist. In the concerto, the orchestra was left to itself for much of the time while the conductor focused on his solo part. But, although some of his solo entries were noticeably faster than the ensemble tempo, the orchestra maintained vitality and discipline.

But it was the Schumann Fourth Symphony where Schmidt’s approach delivered the greatest dividends. It was a very punchy performance, full of dash and drama. Dynamic and rhythmic contrasts were played to the hilt, sometimes at the expense of clean ensemble, but give me a performance like this any day in preference to compromising the vitality and zing for the sake of precision. Polish and precision are important, but without the expressive verve, the notes might as well stay on the page.

In this performance, Wolfgang Emanuel Schmidt brought both the orchestra and the music to life superbly.