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Tectonics and Dominants

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Centre
01/08/2009 -  & January 9, 10, 2009
Tristan Murail: Gondwana
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto Number 11, K. 413
Olivier Messiaen: Oiseaux exotiques
Claude Debussy: La Mer

Olli Mustonen (Piano)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Ludovic Morlot (Conductor)

O. Mustonen (© Outi Montosen)

That dazzling young conductor Ludovic Morlot arranged a program last night which would have done credit to Pierre Boulez. It was mainly French (even the Mozart had a graceful Gallic touch), three stages of avant-garde composers were used, and it had a balance not only of music but of le philosophe. The equally dazzling young Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen was sometimes more terrible than enfant terrible, yet this made the occasion even more fascinating.

In typical Boulez style, Mr. Morlot started with the most advanced work of all, by Tristan Murail, one of Messiaen’s prize students. After the Mozart concerto, he sent on to conduct perhaps the most exciting Messiaen work, using only part of the orchestra, and finished with La Mer.

The philosophical element was of course the transcendence of nature. In the case of Messiaen, the exotic birdcalls (nature being one of his three inspirations, along with the Catholic Church and the Tristan-Isolde myths). Nature in the Debussy was obvious. And nature as the energetic primal eternal almost violent force was found in the opening Gondwana.

That name was given to the supposed land-mass which existed 250-million years ago, and broke up into two other pieces 180 million years ago, finally giving way to our seven continents. Murail transported us to that 70-million year breakup in a mere 17 minutes. But what a 17 minutes that was! The program notes offered a red herring in a virtual acoustician’s blueprint how it was composed. The reality was a huge orchestra, with a mammoth percussion section. More than that, each string played individual lines, directions were giving for playing “the highest possible sound” or “the least loud possible.”

Usually knowing this, a composer might actually minimalize the effects, but we’re talking about the tectonic breaking up of whole coontinent!!! Thus, Murail’s sounds were fearfully loud, urging, awesome. It was easy to decipher the first startling chords, breaking up into thousands of trills and wavering vibrations, but for those without a score hearing this for the first time (this was an American premiere), it was more fun—and fun it was—paying attention to the heaving earth, the aural darknesses, the cosmic thunders of nature at its most Promethean. It was a gorgeous beginning to the concert, and Mr. Murail, presently teaching at Columbia, was present to enjoy the performance.

The Mozart Piano Concerto in F Major stood out prominently as well. But for this listener, it was how not to play Mozart piano concertos. Olli Mustonen has an astounding reputation as pianist, conductor and composer, but here he tried all three at once. I didn’t mind his being painful to look at, his arms distractedly waving or trying to co-conduct the orchestra with Mr. Morlot. It were the piano affectations that were so bothersome, and these were from the very first note. This is the moment when, instead of a pause in the orchestra, the soloist must start slyly, modestly, bringing up the theme with simple modesty and grace. Mr. Mustonen instead started a fraction too early, with a quick plucking note, and the grace of the movement disappeared.

From then on, the soloist performed erratically. Technically very sure of himself, yes, but his notes could have been plucked on the harpsichord. The idea of a line, a measured phrase, was missing. It was as if he was afraid to resonate, until the cadenza, when the foot pedal came down, and he played the most uncharacteristic romantic measures. The second movement is hardly the most passionate of Mozart’s creations, but Mr. Mustonen played it icily, avoiding both expression and nuance. The finale should be an understated pleasantness, but one could detect no character at all. Mozart’s surprise pianissimo ending should be like a tiny spark. Here, it sounded like a mistake.

Obviously, Mr. Mustonen would be able to offer reasons for this aberrant performance. But no excuse was needed at all for Olivier Messiaen’s joyous (if impossible) Oiseaux exotiques. Impossible because the composer gathered the sounds of birds from four continents, put them together, harmonized, orchestrated, gave jolting rhythms and almost hysterical surprises. The 18-piece wind and percussion orchestra did its imitations with flair, and Mr. Mustonen played all the bird-song with a wit, with color (rather with dozens of different piano colors), and flash. Granted, the most startling moments were the first non-ornithological sounds, of thunder and full orchestra. But these were partitions for the scintillating work.

If the program started with Murail’s birth of the earth, it finished with Debussy’s paean to the waters. Yet again, we were treated to urgings, nautical heavings and something far more elemental than a ride in the waves. When Boulez conducts it, one is taken for that journey to the beginnings of the ocean itself. Mr. Morlot, brilliant as he may be, was uncomfortably brisk in his tempos, and gave a quick, hardly atmospheric production.

I was fascinated by Mr. Morlot’s program and loved his conducting, but with La Mer, it was hélas, all to easy to remember that Debussy composed it not by a thunderous ocean, but while living at a hotel in the all too sedate English seaside resort of Eastbourne.

Harry Rolnick



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