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Magyar Magicians From Finland

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
03/24/2011 -  & March 25, 26, 2011
Hungarian Echoes: A Philharmonic Festival
Joseph Haydn: Symphony no. 8 “Le Soir”
Béla Bartók: Piano Concerto No. 1 – Suite from The Miraculous Mandarin
György Ligeti: Clocks and Clouds

Olli Mustonen (Piano), Women of the New York Choral Artists, Joseph Flummerfelt (Director)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Esa-Pekka Salonen (Conductor)

E.-P. Salonen (© Nicho Soedling)

I am hereby ready to renounce apostasy, eagerly genuflecting and adoring whatever Deity inspired Esa-Pekka Salonen to produce this week’s program of the New York Philharmonic, the second devoted to Hungarian music.

One hour after listening, it is evident that having two Finns play a program of three-and-a-half Hungarian composers (Haydn was of course Austrian, though his working life was mainly in the Hungarian countryside) was not only appropriate but ideal. After all, both Finland and Hungary are the outcasts of “neat” linguistic categories. Both countries share a population which came from the vast Siberian spaces or across the Urals and Caucasuses. Both Hungary and Finland have lived under foreign masters, but neither country ever gave up their singular arts and culture to please their overseers.

True, Hungary has generated an undue share of international composers, starting with Liszt (who couldn’t speak Magyar), while Finland had only Jean Sibelius until the last twenty years. But in these two decades, Finland has blossomed with conductors, pianists, composers and orchestras, a Finnish renaissance that has flowered unhindered onto the international stage.

This second of three concerts devoted to Hungary starred two of the most prominent figures of the Finnish Renaissance, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Olli Mustonen. Once an ihmelapsi (the Finnish for Wunderkind), Salonen has retained that enthusiasm, brightness, physical dynamism and intellectual understanding which makes him unfailingly youthful in whatever he plays.

O. Mustonen (© Artists Management Company)

Ollie Mustonen is another phenomena. His recordings of Prokofiev and the “Diabelli” Variations are my favorites. Seeing him in the flesh is another revelation, as he proved here.

The work was Bartók’s rarely played First Concerto, and conductor and pianist were in sync. The piece is tough going for any soloist: hard-driving highly percussive, consistently edgy. Mr. Mustonen, though, is not only an immaculate technician, but he made even the most difficult passages sing (albeit with scary tones).

His physical motions have put off some listeners, but Mr. Mustonen is a composer who instinctively shapes the music with his arms and hands. One listener last night said that even without piano, he was fascinating to watch–and in fact at times his hands were dancing like Charlie Chaplin’s in the famed fork-dance of The Gold Rush.

But how he followed the Bartók dynamics to the letter! A group of sixteenth-notes were written with different dynamics for each, and Mr. Mustonen shaped them literally. If nothing else, he showed that Bartók was right, that nothing could be taken for granted.

The result was dazzling, dizzying, always fresh. And like his encore–I was told that it was from Bartók’s For Children–the work sounded as if it had never been played before.

This was only one of a quartet of Magyar revelations, starting with that ersatz Hungarian, Joseph Haydn, with the third of his “quotidian” symphonies, “Le Soir”, Salonen reduced the orchestra accordingly and gave it a fresh lively sound with some splendid solos by both horns.

The evening finished with the suite from Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin, for which the conductor, dancing, weaving and pulling his way on the podium, made the gory tale of sex, violence, racism and Grand Guignol sound like an eerie carnival from a Hammer horror movie. It was terrific.

But the rarest work was Ligeti’s Clouds and Clocks. Ligeti’s surface attraction hid a bold and intense interest in all things literary and scientific, and this, like many of his early works, was a study in determinacy and indeterminacy (what we now call the Chaos Theory). A German composer might have worked that into an atonal puzzle. But Ligeti, influenced by Minimalists like Terry Riley, turned it into 13 minutes of voice and orchestra working with microtones and colors, darting over the spectrum yet always keeping to the same basic notes.

Like everything Hungarian, its attractions were difficult to fathom, save in the dark recesses of memory and the unused portion of brain. But conductor Salonen opened those doors of perception with unerring and meticulous wonder.

Harry Rolnick



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