Monday, 29 October 2018

OLLI MUSTONEN. PROKOFIEV PIANO CONCERTO NO.2 / Singapore Symphony Orchestra / Review

Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday (26 October 2018)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 29 October 2018 with the title "Controversial pianist provides gripping experience".

The title of Singapore Symphony Orchestra’s latest concert only tells part of the story, and should not have been its main selling point. Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen is a divisive figure among pianophiles. He is either regarded a self-indulgent hack or wayward genius. As expected, his performance of Prokofiev’s early but monumental Second Piano Concerto had many points of contention.

There was no doubt Mustonen possessed the facility to overcome multitudes of notes and recreate the brutalist shock and awe that scandalised the work’s first audiences. However his tendency to pick at notes in a detached and percussive manner, and erratically placing accents when least expected, were jarring. With any hint of subtlety or luxury of legato totally purged, the effect was like hearing glass shattering and then walking barefooted on the shards.

Painfully piquing the ears he did in the opening movement’s massive cadenza, the Scherzo’s machine-gun assault in moto perpetuo, and the 3rd movement’s grotesque ballet. There were neither moments of respite for pianist, orchestra nor audience, thus making for a unnervingly gripping experience. After the tempestuous finale’s firestorm closed with a gigantic crash, there were applause and cheers to match. A quaintly accented encore showed Mustonen could also play quietly.

Amid the cacophony was the tireless industry of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, expertly marshalled by Finnish guest conductor Hannu Lintu who held the whole enterprise together. There was also a pleasing symmetry to the rest of concert, which opened with Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini and closed with Sibelius’ First Symphony, both quasi-programmatic in nature and cast in the key of E minor. 

The harrowing journey to Dante’s Inferno was vividly captured by brass fanfares and heaving strings in the Tchaikovsky. The plight of titular character Francesca’s forbidden love with brother-in-law Paolo was excellently characterised by Li Xin’s clarinet solo, his long-breathed opening statement a premonition of the Sibelius to come. The performance was a breathtaking one, with a dramatic close that epitomised both tragedy and heroism in equal measure.

There is no secret that Sibelius’ First Symphony was influenced by Tchaikovsky. The first bars were dominated by solo clarinet, now helmed by principal Ma Yue, and this theme would return again in the finale. In between was music of sweeping passion, with a debt owed to the Russians but the Finn Sibelius finding his own voice.  

How the orchestra could colour such music with the icy chill of the Arctic, and later bask in the warmth of Mediterranean sunshine within a few pages was down to conductor Lintu’s magisterial control of the entire ensemble. Similarly, the 3rd movement’s boisterous dance was a refreshing contrast with the finale’s big and broad melody, one Rachmaninov would have been proud of. The final glorious apotheosis and quiet close, touches of genius and realised with utmost sympathy, made the evening all the more memorable.

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