Piano Concerto No.4 (Sharp Keys)
Olli Mustonen (piano)
London Symphony Orchestra
Barbican Hall, London
Friday, November 19, 2010
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While I was impressed by Denis Matsuev’s performance of Rodion Shchedrin’s Fifth Piano Concerto back in September (ironically a work written for Mustonen), this Fourth (1991, some twenty years after Shchedrin’s previous piano concerto) was a different story, both in terms of performance and the composition itself. Olli Mustonen has a very particular sound – pecking, hectoring staccatos and he favours contrapuntal workings rather than full, rich textures. Much of the work should have suited him, therefore, given the daringly sparse writing Shchedrin employs on occasion. Similarly the toccata passages (verging on minimalistic) suit his technique to a tee. Yet there was a feeling of the insubstantial about it all. The general impression of the piano-writing was that of a notated stream of consciousness. The second movement is subtitled ‘Russian Chimes’, ostensibly a celebration. The emphasis is on the piano’s extremes of register, the spiky writing ideal for Mustonen. Shchedrin also brings folk-like melodies into the argument and, in keeping with the idea of Russian bells (and therefore a link to the Church), a brass cantus firmus appears (on horns, followed by trumpets). In the final analysis, and no matter how much advocacy Mustonen and Gergiev brought to it, this is a quizzical, patchwork piece. At a touch under forty minutes, its length outlived its materials by some measure. A footnote: Mustonen’s habit of repeatedly wiping the sweat off his brow with his sleeve is ungainly and ever so slightly repellent, not to mention off-putting.
As to the Mahler, much was in place – perfectly judged string balance at the opening, nicely placed off-stage trumpets, a correct and involving second movement, an identifiably Ivesian layering of lines towards the end of the slow movement and superb string playing in the finale. What was errant was Gergiev’s conception. He missed the light of the ‘Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld theme (ensemble was shaky first time round, too – the exposition repeat was observed). Worse, the eloquence of this passage was almost entirely absent (and eloquence was not to appear elsewhere, either). Only the half-voiced trio of the second movement was a triumph. The funeral-march began with several double basses playing the theme (why not solo?). Worse, there was very little black humour – or Jewish, for that matter – about this movement. Even the opening of the finale seemed to be an approximation of an Urschrei rather than the real deal. The movement meandered on, and the horn-players’ bit of exercise at the end (they stood for the final peroration) seemed so empty a gesture. If there was one fault (among many) of this reading, it was a near-total lack of humanity.