Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 - Mustonen

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3 - Mustonen

Ondine  ODE 1123-5

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 3, Violin Concerto (trans. piano)

Olli Mustonen (piano)
Tapiola Sinfonietta

Olli Mustonen continues his acclaimed cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos. In this second volume, the visionary Finnish pianist and conductor turns his talent to the Third Piano Concerto in C minor and the Piano Concerto which Beethoven arranged himself from Violin Concerto of 1906. While this Piano Concerto is seldom played in concert, with only a handful of recordings available, Mustonen regularly puts it on his programmes, and it has become one of his signature pieces.

As on the previous disc, Mustonen performs with the Tapiola Sinfonietta, with whom he has maintained close artistic ties for years, accompanying this Beethoven project with acclaimed tour performances in various European countries.

The booklet includes extensive liner notes written by noted Beethoven scholar and author of the new complete Piano Concerto Edition, Dr. Hans-Werner Küthen of the Beethoven-Archiv, Bonn.

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DXD recording
Reviews (1)

Review by John Miller - September 11, 2008

As with the first disc in Olli Mustonen's cycle of Beethoven piano concertos with the Tapiola Sinfonietta, this one has also provoked a storm of diametrically opposed reviews. Some of the anti-Mustonen criticism has, to put it mildly, been rather intemperate. I suspect that this dichotomy of views arises from several misunderstandings of the stated aims of Mustonen and his orchestra, i.e. the context in which these performances were conceived. The orchestra was specifically constituted to reflect a typical Viennese classical band, with reduced string numbers so that the wind band is more prominent, although using modern instruments. They play in the now well-researched Viennese style of the early C19th.

Mustonen himself has deeply studied the playing style of the Viennese pianists (very different to the post-Romantic style of many present-day artists). He both plays and conducts, which was the common practice, and uses the fairly recently published New Beethoven Edition of the concertos (arriving at an Urtext score superseding many extant corrupt versions was a long and complicated process). He too uses a modern instrument, but plays with a lighter touch, clearer articulation and very little pedal to bring the modern concert grand into scale with the orchestra. Therefore, these are emphatically not 'period' performances in the usual sense. The overall aim of this team is to provide a listening experience which takes us back to the musical spirit of the early C19th but in a modern context.

Some commentators have decried Mustonen's lack of fidelity to 'the score' (whichever that may be). But the presently fashionable dogma of a literal and total devotion to a published edition is a recent, late 19th century concept. In the young Beethoven's Vienna, as it was for Mozart before him, the composer was very much a background figure, public attention being fixed firmly on the performer in the spotlight. Concerto scores were regarded merely as templates for display of the technical, improvisatory and interpretative skills of the performer at a concert. Soloists would add florid ornamentation, mini-cadenzas, bend rhythms, change dynamics at will and generally use the occasion to show off all their abilities, thus sating the Viennese audience's voracious appetite for musical spectaculars. The soloists were also expected to play along with the orchestral tuttis in a continuo fashion, enriching the harmonic structure. Beethoven's playing scores have notations for these continuo parts in all his concertos, but as this practice has rarely been used since the middle of the C19th, the author of the New Beethoven Edition, Prof Hans-Werner Küthen, decided to leave them out, and Mustonen does not play in the tuttis.

In comparison to the considerable elaborations added by Beethoven and his fellow soloists in their performances, Mustonen only adds some accents and some rapid doubling of a few single notes (an effect derived from clavichord music and emulated on the piano in Germany well into the C19th: Beethoven uses it in some of his sonatas). He follows the Viennese classical manner of phrasing, which used a stylised rhetoric and preferred short phrases (the long lines of legato cantilenas in piano music were features of the Romantic era which was still on the horizon at the time these concertos were written). Listeners steeped in the modern style may consider the Classical phrasing 'choppy'. Another feature of the Viennese playing style was that runs of notes should be clearly articulated yet subtly nuanced, giving them expression - which Mustonen does beautifully, so that his playing is full of life and colour. Finally, confirmation of his fidelity to the NBE score comes from the excellent insert notes by its editor, Prof Hans-Werner Küthen, who says Mustonen gave him great satisfaction because he "succeeds in sensitively observing all the subtleties of the score on the basis of a critical edition and fills it with a lively spontaneity in the spirit of the age".

Now to the disc. I greatly enjoyed these performances, which carry on the excellent start made with the first two concertos. Beethoven raises false expectations at the outset by marking the movement Allegro con brio, but in his usual perversely humorous manner begins the concerto quietly and rather mysteriously, before the light blazes out as the soloist takes over. This is very well done here, a real sense of expectation at the start.

At several points in this interpretation, one is reminded very much of Mozart's concerto in the same key. The opening of the adagio, for example. has its opening chords beautifully voiced by Mustonen and the following arioso is played with great inwardness, the Viennese short phrases eloquently delivered. The recitative sections are also quite operatic in the Mozartian vein, and I think the shade of Mozart would have been delighted by the exquisite delicacy of Mustonen's emulation of the aeolian harp near the end of the movement - with wonderful wind solos, one might add. The Rondo bursts in with much youthful energy and wit, marked by infectious rhythmic bounce (with some of those unexpected accents) and sparkling detail, much of it from the orchestra, who are clearly in close rapport with their pianist/conductor.

Many listeners have missed out on Beethoven's Op. 61a concerto in D, seeing it as merely a transcription of the great and unique violin concerto masterpiece. Mustonen has championed this work, and listening to this performance, one can see why. Beethoven went to considerable trouble to re-write much of the piece to suit the piano, adding some extra material, particularly some spectacular cadenzas - magnificently played by Mustonen. The long one in the first movement is an astonishingly original work in itself, with the piano duetting with the tympani (whose drum taps are heard at the beginning of the movement and underpin it). I did notice that in this cadenza the piano gained noticeably more of the hall ambience, so it might have been a take without the rest of the orchestra. However, this was not unduly obvious in its context. The lyrical aspects of the first two movements are given their full due, with warmth and obvious affection for this so-called remaindered work. The finale is a glorious fireworks display, not to be missed. In general, Mustonen seems to be playing more conventionally (smoothly?), perhaps in deference to the continuous tones of the antecedent violin.

I unequivocally give this disc 5 stars for performance, agreeing with some other commentators that it is one of the best interpretations of the C minor concerto available. The Op. 61a concerto is a real find. And I'm content that others will disagree completely. This is the nature of music. I feel that Mustonen, as a pianist/composer himself, has captured the spirit of the young Beethoven as a soloist/composer. His creativity in these performances is challenging, illuminating and ultimately very satisfying to partake of. The DXD recording, mastered in DSD. is clear and generally well balanced, although as a personal preference I would have liked the orchestra to sound a little closer and for the piano to be less closely miked; there is a little action noise and the close-miking does rather tend to catch the ping of accented notes too much.

Final advice: this is a controversial issue, so having read the reviews, audition it before purchase and make your own mind up.

Copyright © 2008 John Miller and


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