Notes and Editorial Reviews
Lest the oddness of the coupling raise an eyebrow or two, let us not forget that there once was a time when the purpose of making a recording was to preserve great performances for posterity. These are two such. Perhaps it's premature to use the word "genius", but Olli Mustonen is rapidly proving himself to be one of the most individual (in a good, not perverse sense) and versatile pianist/conductor/composers before the public today. Certainly his conducting reveals a maturity and skill far in advance of several other soloists taking the podium, including, to name just two, Pletnev and Perlman. Of his pianistic skills--he's tonally sort of a Glenn Gould with fewer eccentricities--there has
never been much doubt. The Helsinki Festival Orchestra is a chamber group (strings in numbers 7,7,6,5,4) formed by Mustonen and friends somewhat along the lines of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and my but they do play!
Actually, there is sort of a loose sense in which these composers do belong together, as both actively repudiated the wilder 20th-century avant-garde and arrived at personal styles derived from traditional elements. That rationalization aside, it's the contrast between them that makes this disc so enjoyable to play through at a sitting. In particular, Sibelius' emphatically triadic harmony, its celebration of chains of thirds in the wind writing, contrasts very refreshingly with Hindemith's fourth-based harmonic system. And then there's the sheer joy of the playing itself: this is easily the finest available version of The Four Temperaments, and perhaps of the symphony as well, though this assessment will not be without controversy.
First the Hindemith: start with stunning string playing, gorgeously recorded. Despite the small forces, the rich, perfectly balanced sonority they produce gives the music the timbral depth it needs without any trace of heaviness. They bring extraordinary fire and passion to the Sanguine and Choleric variations, and the necessary long-breathed lines to Melancholy. Mustonen's playing imbues the piano part with great energy and wit. His initial entry has the insouciance of Prokofiev, and he plays the grand Romantic peroration at the end as if his life depended on it. It's not surprising that he shows such a keen affinity for Hindemith's music: his Decca recording of the normally intractable Ludus Tonalis made even that forbidding piece more than palatable. Some might object to Mustonen's spiky, pedal-less sonority, and watching him play can be as agonizing as watching Jim Nabors sing; but there's no denying his ability to infuse this work with character--which after all is what the piece is about.
The only objection that might be leveled against this Sibelius Third is that the small string section underplays some of the work's sonic grandeur, but there's also no denying that Mustonen draws his performance to scale, emphasizing the neo-classical elements in a reading of swift hyper-clarity that eclipses even Berglund's recent efforts along similar lines. From the very beginning, with the lower strings emphasizing the repeated four-note figures, you can hear that Mustonen understands how to inflect a line to enlivening effect without breaking it. This is in fact one of those performances that makes the music sound completely new and surprising, but it does so by actually following the score rather than by disfiguring it with "expressive" distortions and manipulations.
Take two examples: Many performances slam on the brakes for the first movement's coda, producing an unwelcome, ponderous solemnity. Mustonen notices that Sibeilus asks for this coda to be played in the same basic tempo as the main body of the movement "ma un pochettino largamente" (but the tiniest bit slower)--and that's all it is, with final bars forte and not fortissimo, as Sibelius actually directs. And what a difference it makes! Similarly, when the finale's "big tune" finally emerges (after figure 13) in the full string section, instead of making a sludge-fest of it like most performances, Mustonen actually picks up the tempo and gives the phrasing an added swing. The effect is so startling it sent me running to my score, where, lo and behold, we find the directive "a tempo, con energia". Why is it so seldom that a conductor gives Sibelius what he so clearly wants? Remaining in tempo additionally means that Mustonen can honor the composer's instruction "little by little very slightly faster to the end".
One of the reasons this finale so often misfires is because it either starts too slowly at figure 13 and never arrives, or it gets whipped up to such a froth that the abrupt ending sounds anti-climactic. Play it the way Sibelius wrote it, and the entire passage from figure 13 on serves as a well balanced, sufficiently weighty peroration without the need for major interference from the podium, the accumulated energy spilling over naturally and inevitably into the final bars. Note especially the carefully observed dynamics in the brass, trombones in particular: they heed Sibelius' "sempre forte" designation and only hit fortissimo when the composer asks them to--for the final three notes.
It's this combination of respect for the score along with knowing when to "interpret" that makes this performance so special. Oh, and did I mention Mustonen's perfect tempo for the twilit second movement, coolly flowing and never too slow, with subtle emphasis on the constantly shifting accompaniments (such as at figures 4 and 5) so as to float the melody atop the subordinate voices? In the final analysis, you can quibble about a few things here: short playing time (51:53 total), strange coupling, or size of the performing forces; but what's indisputable is that this is great music making, plain and simple, and if that's what you want when you purchase a recording of pieces that you love, then buy this.
--David Hurwitz, ClassicsToday.com
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 3 in C major, Op. 52 by Jean Sibelius
Helsinki Festival Orchestra
Written: 1907; Finland
Theme and Variations for Piano and Strings "The Four Temperaments" by Paul Hindemith
Olli Mustonen (Piano)
Helsinki Festival Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1940; USA
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52: I. Allegro moderato
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52: II. Andantino con moto, quasi allegretto
Symphony No. 3 in C major, Op. 52: III. Moderato - Allegro (ma non tanto)
Theme and Variations, "The 4 Temperaments": Theme
Theme and Variations, "The 4 Temperaments": Variation 1: Melancholy
Theme and Variations, "The 4 Temperaments": Variation 2: Sanguine
Theme and Variations, "The 4 Temperaments": Variation 3: Phlegmatic
Theme and Variations, "The 4 Temperaments": Variation 4: Choleric
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