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On the Aisle



Olli Mustonen: Mannerism Over Music

By Philip Anson / January 12, 2001
On the Aisle

Olli Mustonen, piano
Solo Recital
Carnegie Hall
Jan. 12, 2001

The young Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen is one of the classical piano world's new brat pack who seem to be trying to redefine classical pianism through willful "derangement of the senses", to use a Rimbaudesque phrase. Listening to these technically impeccable performers, one wonders if their experimentation is motivated by boredom with the old or fascination with the new. Along with the provocative Croation Ivo Pogorelich and the flamboyant Russian Arcadi Volodos, Mustonen uses the score as a springboard for his own aleatory experiments with tempo, phrasing, and dynamics.

I guess Glenn Gould is the father of this eccentric school of young rebels who wilfully alienate conservative listeners, while building a small but vociferous following among the cognoscenti. Pogorelich's slow tempos and weird silences turn his concerts into sessions of mental torture or sublime zen meditation, depending on your expectations. Volodos is the idiot savant of the Steinway, performing astounding digital acrobatics that verge on a circus act.

Mustonen falls somewhere in between. He is definitely more sentient than Volodos. One senses that is trying to accomplish something -- but it is not clear what. His Carnegie Hall solo recital on Jan. 12, was characteristic. On paper the program of Beethoven and Brahms looked staid, but Mustonen's playing turned even the most hackneyed pieces into novelties. Beethoven's Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28, was eccentrically executed. His fingering was percussive and detached, almost as if he was imitating the stiff action of the pianoforte for which Beethoven composed (Mustonen studied harpsichord in his youth, and it shows). There was little pedalling, and his reticent phrasing had the effect of a boxer's pulled punches.

Beethoven's Bagatelles, Op. 119, were even more mannered, sounding like Olli's variations on Ludwig's themes. The miniatures were chewed up and petulant, like a sentence pronounced with consonants but without vowels. This chopping and changing of tempo and phrasing had the effect of overkneaded dough. Instead of producing a fluffy loaf, the final result was brittle matzo. In Beethoven's Rondo a capriccio, Op. 129 ("Rage over a lost penny"), and the Fantasia in G minor, Op. 77, one marvelled at Mustonen's virtuosity. There was no doubt he could play beautifully in the traditional fashion, but instead he seemed to be playing to amuse himself. The paying audience was made to feel like a voyeuristic intruder on a scene in which a man was dancing with his own shadow. After the intermission, Brahms's Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel , Op. 24, left us marvelling at the effort Mustonen put into underscoring simple contrasts without making any profounder statement. Throughout the concert, Mustonen waved his hands in the air and fluttered his fingers "expressively" as if to caress the reverberant sound. Not since Liberace has a pianist layed on the flourishes so thick. One left Carnegie Hall feeling one had witnessed performance art, a happening, or a work in progress. As the New York Times noted, it was impressive, but mannered and maddening.

Copyright by Philip Anson


(c) La Scena Musicale 2000