Mustonen Pokes and Prods at Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 6

Sound Quality: 9

Olli Mustonen’s dry, witty playing, with minimal pedal and almost fortepiano-like sonority, restores much of the humor to the first movements of both concertos, reminding us that they still very much speak the language of Mozartian comic opera. The dialog between solo and clarinet in the slow movement of Concerto No. 1 (actually the second in order of composition) is absolutely delicious, sly and charming without ever turning coy. So far, so good, particularly given excellent playing by the Tapiola Sinfonietta and warmly spacious engineering as well in all formats (including 5.0 surround-sound).

There are moments, however, where Mustonen’s choice of phrasing and accent is so grotesque as to ensure that the listener laughs at him rather than with him. I am thinking here of his mangling of the tunes that open both finales. That of No. 2 is a bit worse in this respect, but both are truly tasteless. When the orchestra comes in playing the main themes normally, the result not only comes as a positive relief, it makes Mustonen sound simply incompetent, which at least from a technical point of view he certainly is not.

I respect Mustonen as a composer/pianist who has a genuine personal style and no shortage of ideas. However, he needs to have the self-discipline to separate the good from the bad, and never treat the music itself with contempt. In particular, he should avoid giving listeners the impression that Beethoven isn’t interesting enough as written, and so needs to be “tarted up” arbitrarily merely to give the soloist something different to do. These two concertos may not represent Beethoven at his best, but they’re still better than to need Mustonen’s help. Hopefully as this projected series progresses, his growth as an interpreter will coincide with Beethoven’s as a composer. [Editor’s Note: These performances are now available in a set of the complete Beethoven Piano Concertos]

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Fleisher/Szell (Sony)

LUDWIG VAN BEETHOVEN - Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2

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