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Beethoven: Piano Concertos 4 & 5 - Mustonen

Beethoven: Piano Concertos 4 & 5 - Mustonen

Ondine  ODE 1146-5

Stereo/Multichannel Hybrid

Classical - Orchestral


Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4, Piano Concerto No. 5 "Emperor"

Tapiola Sinfonietta
Olli Mustonen (piano)


Olli Mustonen crowns his acclaimed cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos with recordings of the famous concertos nos. 4 and 5.

In line with the two earlier installments, he performs these two virtuoso works simultaneously as pianist and conductor - a demanding practice in line with Beethoven's intentions, which can however be only seldom experienced in today's concert life or on disc. Mustonen develops his visionary approach to these works together with the renowned chamber orchestra Tapiola Sinfonietta; together they have toured Europe with this program to much acclaim.

The SACD quality faithfully renders Mustonen's incomparable mastery of piano sound and technique. 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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Review by John Miller - October 12, 2009

Mustonen's Beethoven Piano Concerto cycle has been stylistically hybrid, blending the Tapiola Sinfonietta of 40 players on modern instruments (but specialising in historically aware performance practices) with a full-blooded Steinway. Uniquely, Mustonen undertakes to conduct as well as play solo, thus being a composer-pianist-conductor as was Beethoven himself.

As another element in the blend, the performances have used the recent Urtext edition by Hans-Werner Küthen from the New Complete Edition of Beethoven's Works by the Beethoven-Archiv in Bonn. These texts have revealed Beethoven's original articulation markings, misunderstood or bowdlerised in previous editions, which indicate much more detached and staccato playing than hitherto heard in these concertos (causing consternation for some listeners). With recent recordings of Beethoven symphony cycles and piano concertos using such new sources, the spread of hybrid performance combinations appears to be making a significant adjunct to that other stream, of performances wholly on period instruments.

The Tapiola Sinfonietta's long association with Ollie Mustonen ensures the essential rapport that a soloist-conductor requires, and the ensemble is tight and fully interactive. As usual, the orchestral contribution is excellently delivered and finely controlled, with the Sinfonietta somewhat more forward in the balance than previously, making for a more immersive experience. And an experience is what we get, with both Mustonen and the orchestra removing centuries of varnish from the sound pictures, revealing textural layering, countermelodies and Beethoven's complex rhythmic conundrums often as though one were listening to them for the first time.

The Fourth piano concerto is portrayed here very much as one of Beethoven's post-Eroica "new Style" works; warmly lyrical, with refined rhetoric and a sparkling wit (rather than Beethoven's usual robust knock-about humour). It was composed between 1805-6, alongside the Pastoral Symphony, many echoes of which pervade the concerto.

Beginning without arpeggiating the first G major chord as surprisingly does Pizarro (Beethoven: Piano Concertos 3-5 - Pizarro, Mackerras), Mustonen takes us on a fascinating voyage of rediscovery with movement timings close to those of the Pizzaro/Mackerras version. He gives us glorious pianism, intense and spontaneous but unusually self-effacing, and displays a real affection for this concerto of contrasts. There is so much affecting orchestral detail to tickle the ear too; I particularly loved the very clear cello solo which appears after the first short cadenza in the Rondo, and several times thereafter. Cadenzas, incidentally, are Beethoven's first of those he penned probably in 1809. A wonderful version of Op. 58 by any standards.

Mustonen and the orchestra move into another, higher, gear for Op. 73. This concerto dates from 1809, the period in which Napoleon's Army over-ran Vienna. Most of the aristocracy, including Beethoven's patrons, moved away from the city. He was terrified and distressed by the sounds of battle, cowering in a basement with a cushion over his head to protect his vulnerable ears, often crying out for his mother. The music is therefore full of military allusions and incitements to peace, and Mustonen makes the most of its Imperial manner.

His opening cadenza has a grander flourish than usual, utilising the rhythmic patterns of 4, 5 and 7 semiquavers to accent the notes of the E flat chord, which are sustained by Beethoven's marked pedal for most of the bar. An imaginative and striking effect, another one of which is an extraordinary strutting effect of the main theme when set against the left-hand downwards chromatic scales - sounding like a parody of the swaggering French officers who used to invite themselves to his concerts during the occupation. Mustonen finds room to make such effects by having a somewhat slower overall tempo than Pizarro and Mackerras in this movement.

The Fifth's Adagio un poco moto was marked as being in 4/4 time in the first and most subsequent editions - until the new Urtext. A photograph in the booklet of the autograph's first page shows clearly that the piece was written in 2/2 time, which has an impact not just on the speed but the flowing nature of the two-bar phrases which follow. Mustonen is again slower than Mackerras (7'23 to Mackerras' 6'04), and has time to take note of Beethoven's marginal instruction of "dämmerung" (twilight or gloaming) which gives a clue to the movement's romantic origins.

Mustonen's Rondo, again notably broader than Mackerras', startles from its beginning. Using the leaping theme's perversely-written attempted rhythm of 4 beats against a left-hand bar of 6/8, he has his fun by holding back slightly and then emphasising one of the bass notes in the RH pause, thus rocking the lilt on its toes before it innocently bounds away. No doubt this effect will cause consternation, but on further hearing it adds to the satire which seems to be just below the surface in this movement. This inventive device only appears in the first and second arrivals of the Rondo theme, its further returns are deliciously demure and untroubled. Personally-devised effects apart, however, the Rondo is symphonically conceived and its rhetoric thoroughly exploited, with brilliant military eruptions set against capriciously tuneful dancing, and a barnstorming Presto dash to the finishing post which deserves standing applause.

Ondine's DXD originated recording is superb in balance and perspective, with a glowingly pure piano tone especially in the treble, which perfectly suits Mustonen's crystalline playing. A minor downside, however, are frequent LF thumping noises which seem to emanate from Mustonen; possibly from pedalling or his stamping while conducting. The rumbles may have been transmitted through a mike stand. Although noticeable on my full-range speakers when played at a domestically realistic volume, other systems may not register it so much.

Those who have already encountered earlier discs in this cycle will know if they want to explore these two last concertos with Mustonen. I would urge listeners who are not wholly wedded to the prevailing performance "tradition" (which after all is only a fashion in passing) to listen with open ears and experience a new and unique interpretation, thought-provoking, revealing and above all a hugely enjoyable music experience.

Copyright © 2009 John Miller and HRAudio.net

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