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Archive for February, 2015

Olli Mustonen

olli-mustonenI was once mistaken for Olli Mustonen, though not because of my piano-playing. After attending a recital at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on London’s South Bank, I was chatting to an acquaintance that I occasionally saw at concerts, a friend of Alfred Brendel, Imogen Cooper and, it seemed, half the other pianists based in London. A distinguished lady approached him to say hello, and then suddenly turned to me and said, “You must be Olli Mustonen.” I seem to recall that she was a concert promoter or agent, or the wife of one, so perhaps she was hoping to sign me up. Disappointed to discover who I really was, she ignored me from then on.

Olli Mustonen was born ten years after me, but this incident occurred about twenty-five years ago, when I looked much younger than my age, and we both had rather boyish looks with flopping brown hair. Sadly, I don’t think I would be mistaken for him today. At the time, Mustonen had just started making waves, partly through a radio broadcast of Beethoven’s Variations, Op. 34 and Schumann’s Kreisleriana. I found the Beethoven revelatory, with an astonishing range of touch, articulation, and pianistic color, manically eccentric playing that seemed ideally matched to Beethoven at his most quirkily inventive. My friend told me that Alfred Brendel loved the Beethoven but disliked the Schumann, while Imogen Cooper felt the opposite. Mustonen has been dividing his listeners ever since.

Today at Symphony Center in Chicago, I at last had a chance to reevaluate this controversial pianist. He played an unusual program consisting of Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young, a group of Chopin Mazurkas, one of his own compositions, and some late Scriabin. I can report that he has not mellowed at all in the intervening years. In fact, the opening Tchaikovsky revealed just how egregious his mannerisms could be. Although occasionally mawkish (The New Doll is followed in quick succession by The Sick Doll and then The Doll’s Burial), these are on the whole touchingly simple pieces, unaffected distillations of Tchaikovsky’s melodic genius. But Mustonen doesn’t do simplicity. Nearly every phrase was bent out of recognizable shape by exaggerated dynamic contrasts, stentorian declamations suddenly dissolving into pianissimos within a single bar without any discernible musical logic. The only piece I was familiar with was the Mazurka, which I had to play for a music exam as a child. I am fairly sure that the Associated Board examiner would have failed me if I had played it like Mustonen.

It is frustrating because he has a quite extraordinary range of interpretative tools at his disposal, if only he used them with a little more restraint. He was more successful with some of the European postcards in the collection, such as the Neapolitan and German pastiches, as well as with the Chopin Mazurkas that followed, music that survived his extravagant rhythmic freedom and benefited from his richly colored climaxes.

The music after the interval was a great improvement. Olli Mustonen played his own piano sonata, Jehkin Iivana, named after a nineteenth century exponent of rune singing from his native Finland. This was vividly atmospheric music, alternating brooding chordal passages over a gently tolling bell with music of bracing rhythmic energy. It was virtuoso story-telling of mythic grandeur, if not mythic length. Perhaps surprisingly, I felt that, in playing his own music, Mustonen displayed the kind of interpretative discipline that I had missed until now.

With the final two works by Scriabin, his tenth piano sonata and the miniature tone poem, Vers La Flamme, Mustonen at last found a composer that matched him for idiosyncrasy. This is music for the hothouse (pun intended), both pieces slowly building up to coruscating climaxes of trills and tremolos. In the sonata, the tension subsides at the end, so I think Mustonen, who suppressed applause between the two pieces by performing elaborate curlicues with his arms, intended Vers La Flamme to be its culmination, the final realization of Scriabin’s apocalyptic vision.

Olli Mustonen can be a maddening artist. Given the right music, his fertile imagination can coerce you into hearing music with fresh ears and make it come alive in unexpected ways. But given the wrong music, and that probably includes the majority of the piano repertoire, he can bury the music beneath spiky staccatos, hairpin dynamics, and clipped articulation. I think the problem is that he needs to appropriate whatever music he plays, recreating it in his own image, so it is perhaps fitting that the best performance of the afternoon was of his own composition. The golden age of pianist-composers is long over (Mustonen played two encores by the last of them, Sergei Prokofiev), so I found it quite moving to have a taste of what that era was like this afternoon.

 

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