Mustonen Finally Gets It in Beethoven: Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5

Review by: David Hurwitz

Artistic Quality: 9

Sound Quality: 9

There’s no question that Olli Mustonen is a brilliant pianist; the only question is whether or not his innate quirkiness, sometimes amounting to perversity, will get the better of him. It did in the first two releases in this cycle, but happily it doesn’t here. Make no mistake, his impish sense of humor and delight in hyper-clear, staccato phrasing is still very much in evidence, but now it’s placed in service to Beethoven’s genius. This is most evident in the Fourth Concerto, which receives a performance that many will find revelatory. Right from the opening, played with a forthright brusqueness very different from the “metaphysical” inwardness we usually hear, you feel that Mustonen will be very much his own man.

Because this is Beethoven’s most Mozartian piano concerto, most players stress the music’s elegance and lyricism. Not here. Mustonen’s crisply articulated runs and angular phrasing (check out his initial entrance) turn the piano into an individual personality in vivid contrast to the suave cantabile of the orchestra. In the slow movement, where the roles are essentially reversed (calm piano vs. angry orchestra), Mustonen achieves the necessary Olympian calm without mannerism, and this makes his single feverish outburst all the more impressive. The finale, taken not too quickly, is still Vivace in all matters rhythmic, which is exactly right, and through it all the Tapiola Sinfonietta accompanies beautifully.

The “Emperor” displays many of the same qualities: listen to Mustonen’s articulation of the opening cascades; to his delicacy in the “toy music” of the second subject; to his characterful touch in the Adagio; and to a finale that once again takes Beethoven’s “ma non troppo” modification to the basic Allegro tempo seriously (without compromising the music’s joyous character). The only reservation in this case stems from the fact that the Tapiola Sinfonietta sounds too small in the string department to give the first movement’s principal theme the weight that it ideally requires, but with excellently balanced engineering and some particularly attractive work from the horns and winds, this is a disc that deserves serious consideration. And as I said, the Fourth Concerto really is special. [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. 4 & 5 "Emperor"

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