Olli Mustonen – Goldberg Variations

Goldberg Variations, BWV988

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 1 March, 2007
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Queen Elizabeth Hall

Olli Mustonen is enjoying a career as a pianist, composer and conductor. He is also the founder of the Helsinki Festival Orchestra. Regarding Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Mustonen invites us, in his programme note, to “witness the miracle of creation itself: How myriads of life forms are being born out of a single beginning”. If only this were so here, as at this performance everything, except the Variation that Bach marked Adagio (XXV) and the ‘Aria’ itself, was played so that it was difficult to discern where one Variation ended and the next began.

Observing all the marked repeats, Mustonen’s rendition lasted 70 minutes. This was rapid playing from him and, judging from the sweat on his brow and Mustonen’s emotional outpouring during the return of the ‘Aria’ to bring the work full-circle, a very cathartic experience for him. Yet, this reading left one feeling indifferent towards the music.

The purpose of repeats should surely give the interpreting musician (whether on piano or harpsichord) an opportunity to explore a different style so as to highlight some aspect of the music that is not first heard, even if this is achieved with something as simple as playing the first hearing forte and the repeat piano. Mustonen, however, played the repeats in exactly the same way as their first hearing, which begs the question: why play them at all?

A blow-by-blow account is not necessary, but instead let it be sufficient to say that the criticism of any one Variation as being monotonous and offering no colour applies equally to the next and the next. Overall, this was a performance of missed opportunities. Even the nine Canons, which are dispersed through the piece, did not offer any texture to the all-pervading sense of ‘functionalism’.

What was ably proved here was that hitting the right notes and playing them rapidly does not make for good music-making. The pianist must invest his own ideas into the music and be daring, if anything is to be communicated to the listener. From Mustonen, though, there was far too many extra-musical histrionics, such as hands floating in the air and the wiping of sweat from his brow using his upper arm, which was most distracting. There were a couple of well-executed Variations, such as the ‘quicksilver’ one that contrasted with the previous, extended ‘Black Pearl’ XXV, and the ‘joke’ XXX, which displayed some good technical playing.

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