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The Perverse and the Profound

New York
Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Metropolitan Museum of Art
01/11/2009 -  
Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky: The Seasons, Opus 37a
Olli Mustonen: Jehkin Iivana (New York premiere)
Dmitri Shostakovich: Piano Quintet in G Minor, Opus 57

Olli Mustonen (Piano), with Members of the New York Philharmonic: Michelle Kim, Fiona Simon (Violins), Rebecca Young (Viola), Eileen Moon (Cello)

Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium (© Sarah Merians)

For his second New York performance this week, Finnish pianist/conductor/composer Olli Mustonen demonstrated again that genius may be perverse, outlandish, idiosyncratic—but it should never be boring. Last week, Mr. Mustonen played a Mozart concert memorable for all the wrong reasons. He played like music which had been put through a washing machine and come out with new colors, shrunken dimensions, sleeves and hems hanging loose. The notes were those on the score, but they were hardly Mozartian. Immediately after that, he performed with a group from the New York Philharmonic Messiaen’s Oiseaux exotiques in a performance that could only be called thrilling.

Last night, in the beautiful Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium, Mr. Mustonen again showed that he can be an outstanding ensemble musician, playing with four members of the New York Philharmonic. He also showed—for this writer’s first time—what a brilliant composer he can be. But in the solo of Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, the playing made half-hearted attempts at atmosphere, with lackluster results. To his credit, Mr. Mustonen could alter emotions with the greatest alacrity. But these single jewels never really coalesced into one piece.

To get that over with, The Seasons (which should be called “The Months”) can smack of salon music, but certainly has charm. The “Troika” is quirky, The song of the lark in “March” is very pretty (though hardly related Messiaen’s birds!). Though he uses a score for everything, including his own work, Mr. Mustonen certainly knew the music all too well, and in the rare virtuosic phrases (as in “January”), he swung into interest with his faultless and very impressive technique.

But I was waiting most for the New York premiere of Jehkin Iivana, the story of a 19th Century Orpheus or Woody Guthrie, who could make his instrument, the Finnish kantele, transport the listener into myths and other times. When I was in Karelia, that most rural province of Finland, I would hear this beautiful instrument, where the player sweeps the strings, creating resonances and tunes at the same time, wondering whether composer Mustonen would try to imitate this.

No, he never tried. Originally a work for guitar, it was transcribed into a hypnotic piano work which started with the simplest folk song (harmonized like early Bartók). Then continued with..….well, not exactly variations, but a spectrum of emotional works on the piano, where the folk tune peeped out at different times. There were other quotes, only two of which I recognized. One by Medtner, the other the Dies Irae, but the whole work breathed of great piano playing and an organic well-structured composition.

The evening ended off with string players from the New York Philharmonic playing an excellent Shostakovich Piano Quintet. No idiosyncratic tricks from Mr. Mustonen. He played with power and feeling, a wee bit too stodgy in the scherzo, but otherwise with true emotion. The four female artists—especially violinist Michelle Kim in her Intermezzo solo—were excellent, proving not only how great the young Shostakovich could be, but how grand these five youngish players could become.

Harry Rolnick



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