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Don't Try This At Home

New York
Carnegie Hall
01/12/2001 -  
Ludwig van Beethoven: Sonata # 15; Bagatelles, Op. 119; Rage Over a Lost Penny; Fantasia in G Minor
Johannes Brahms: Handel Variations

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Schoenberg’s essay Brahms the Progressive notwithstanding, the composer of the Handel Variations was enamored almost to obsession by the music of the past, as is the dedicated serious music listener at the turn of the 21st century. Later in life, Brahms would lose his dream position as music director of the Vienna Philharmonic for programming too much Bach and Handel at a time when the educated listener was clamoring for more contemporary pieces (including, ironically, his own). Basically an autodidact, the composer from the slums of Hamburg was most proud of two achievements: his honorary doctorate and his extensive musical library. The study of scores from the past became his passion after his estrangement from Clara Schumann and he posed in this activity for a very famous photograph in his valedictory years. Just as we now canonize him, he looked back reverentially at the Baroque period for much of his inspiration. The Fourth Symphony, for example, would be inconceivable without the music of early 18th century Germany and Brahms’ own earlier experiments in the variation form.

The other imperative operating in the Handel Variations is its immense sense of spiritual and physical strength. Brahms was a Herculean pianist with broad shoulders and large hands and he cared not a whit about making his pieces easy for others to perform (his twentieth century doppelganger in this regard would be Rachmaninoff). The early sonatas and the second concerto are not for the lily-handed (not to mention the devilishly difficult Paganini Variations) and many of his accompaniments and chamber collaborations are disproportionately dominant unless their practitioner exercises a certain degree of restraint (Brahms the pianist could be a very polite and self-effacing musical partner, but only if the spirit moved him). A complicated essay like these variations requires unusual masculinity, extreme dexterity and an entire pallet of emotional colors. Where many pianists are done in is at the end of the formal variations and the beginning of the fugue, for this caesura is hardly a resting-place; rather it is only the beginning of a strenuous Alpine climb.

Olli Mustonen is a young Finnish pianist with a growing reputation on CD. Perhaps he is better appreciated through an electronic medium, with many opportunities to airbrush his sins, rather than actually experienced at a live recital. His technique is extremely visually distracting, his habit of lifting his arms above eye level and wriggling his fingers seemingly uncontrollably suspect, his consistent wiping of his sweaty brow upon his sleeve bordering on repugnant. Mr. Mustonen expends a tremendous amount of unnecessary energy in his fluttering and flapping rather than husbanding his resources to better serve the music. Everyone was affected by his idiosyncratic acrobatics and many patrons discussed the prudence of exiting at intermission. It almost seemed as if this pianist was deliberately exhibiting these flailings as a desperate cry for attention.

All of this would be forgivable, even irrelevant, if the finished musical product was of a high quality. Not surprisingly, however, Mr. Mustonen’s landings are often clumsy and consistently miss their mark. Much unwanted dissonance results from his shenanigans and, in the fugal section of the Brahms, it was literally true that the left hand did not know what the right was doing. The young man’s emotional involvement was also in doubt during the Beethoven set; he appeared to be only mildly irritated over that lost penny. Every boy in Santo Domingo wants to grow up to be a baseball player; in Helsinki they all want to become composers. The program notes provided by the hall indicate that Mustonen is only playing the piano to support himself while he waits for his big break as a creative presence, destined, at least in his own mind, to be the next Sibelius. Although this may be legitimate, even admirable, I don’t know if we all need to witness the early years of the process. To its credit, the New York crowd greeted each ending note with only a small round of applause. Although a strapping physical specimen, Mustonen was totally overmatched by his repertoire. I suspect that some blame should be reserved for his teachers; certainly his agent needs to realize that he is not ready for Carnegie Hall.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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