Michael Houstoun & Bella Hristova

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24 August 2017, Blyth Performing Arts Centre, Havelock North

When Chamber Music New Zealand declared that Kiwi pianist Michael Houstoun and Bulgarian violinist Bella Hristova would this month reprise their successful 2008 concert tour with a programme of Beethoven violin sonatas, the event was pretty much guaranteed to sell itself.

Indeed Havelock North’s Blythe Performing Arts Centre drew a sizeable audience on Thursday, and most expectations would have been fulfilled with the programme – Sonata No. 1 in D, Op. 12, No.1; Sonata No. 4 in A minor, Op23, and the “Kreutzer”   Sonata No. 9 in A, Op. 47.

Hristova considers that the tour nine years ago – part of her prize for winning the Michael Hill violin competition  –  was  the start of her performing career.  A visit to her website reveals just how busy (and rightly acclaimed) she is, and a revisiting of her collaboration with Houstoun, in which both discovered a mutual passion for Beethoven, was certainly worth observing first-hand.

Hristova is an immensely rewarding performer.  She played with bravura, great expressive power as well as consummate tenderness. And her tone was simply delectable.  Houstoun’s accompaniment was responsive and refreshingly insightful.

Together they shone particularly in the magisterial Kreutzer sonata, a virtuosic work for both instruments and which in its emotional breadth proved a watershed for chamber music.  It’s always a pleasure to hear such a nuanced rendering of a mainstay of one’s favourite repertoire.  Clearly there is much about working with Hristova that Houstoun has found equally captivating.

Not only would Thursday’s fare have rated high on the agenda of any seasoned or aspiring violinist, but it was also an accessible drawcard for anyone hungering for performance music. And yet . . . barring one or two exceptions, it was an audience of grey heads.

So where were all the young that night?  It is a surprisingly regular feature of such performances that so many capable of enjoying them are absent, particularly as many first-class musicians would appreciate, and benefit from, such patronage.

Is the enriching experience of attending a top-flight performance not sufficiently appreciated?  Has the misconception taken hold that recorded music is as near as dammit to the real thing, ignoring the audiophile’s law of diminishing returns: that no amount spent on recording technology can ever compensate for actually being there?

The region has no shortage of music students who should at least profess an interest in two artists at the top of their craft. They can’t all be holding down night-time jobs – preparation, perhaps, for careers in music.  Perhaps there should be a requirement for all students of music to attend a minimum number of live performances.

For those who stayed home, their loss, of course.  But what a wasted opportunity.

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