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Jens F. Laurson
WETA 90.9 FM Blog, December 2010

How much does the recurrent revelation of greatness among Beethoven’s Piano Concertos owe to the particular recordings we are playing, and how much to our disposition, approaching them—which is to say: Beethoven, rather than the particular artist? The question has come up a few times in the last months, as I’ve heard, dismissed, and been surprised by several new recordings. Most recently Olli Mustonen’s final installment of the five concertos containing the Fourth and Fifth on one disc, released late last year on SACD by Ondine. (He also includes Beethoven’s transcription of the Violin Concerto for piano—which is coupled with the Third on ODE 1123.)

James Manheim, November 2009

This disc rounds out the Beethoven concerto cycle by the young Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen, earlier items of which have inspired wildly varied reactions among listeners. Mustonen is something of an innovator/radical/eccentric (take your pick), and his interpretations are revelatory for some, mannered for others. As usual, the truth is probably going to poke its head out somewhere in the middle, and Mustonen like every other pianist will be pegged for strengths and weaknesses. This disc offers, perhaps, good examples of both. Mustonen’s approach is at the same time dryly witty and oriented toward the excavation of the inner structures of the music (which is saying something). His tempos are variable, even to the point of inserting lengthy ritardandi into the music in order to bring out the inner voices of chords and cadential passages, which take on unsuspected new significance in his readings. His solo sections are lively and quite distinct from the orchestral music that corresponds to them. Start at the very beginning with the opening movement of the Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, where the unexpected piano solo statement at the outset is treated very brightly and playfully. The effect is to separate the solo and orchestral spheres, and this tendency continues through both concertos. Mustonen’s piano, even to a degree in the massive Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat major, Op. 73, is an imp, tugging and stretching at the basic thematic material laid down in the orchestra. This by and large works better in the formally relaxed fourth concerto than in the Piano Concerto No. 5, where Mustonen is in danger of diluting the dramatically large spaces Beethoven constructs. More generally, Mustonen is one of a number of young artists borrowing insights from the historical-performance movement while using familiar modern instruments. He plays a modern piano, and from the keyboard he conducts the 40-member Tapiola Sinfonietta, which delivers a crisp sound and responds closely to what’s happening on the piano, if possible. Listeners will naturally be individual in their feelings toward Mustonen’s performances, but it’s hard to imagine anyone being bored by them, and that’s all to the good. Ondine’s sound is top-notch, and the booklet notes (in English, German, and Finnish) provide basic information about the music and its circumstances of origin.

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