Poetry – and Rhetoric – from Pianist Olli Mustonen

24/05/2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Bach, Shostakovich, Rachmaninov: Olli Mustonen (piano), Dora Stoutzker Hall, Royal Welsh college of Music and Drama, Cardiff, 20.5.2012 (GPu)

Bach: Partita No. 5 in G, BWV 829
Shostakovich
: Piano Sonata No.2 in B minor, Op.61
Rachmaninov
: Thirteen Preludes, Op.32

Musicologists have long told of us of the importance of rhetoric to the shape and methods of baroque music – more than one of them quoting Joachim Burmeister writing, in 1601, that “there is only a slight difference between music and the nature of oration”. Music and oratory both sought to persuade and to move, and practitioners of music and rhetoric alike learned certain methods to bring about that ‘moving’ of their audience, to do their best to ensure that their performances communicated with, and directed the feelings of, their audiences in chosen directions. The reminder of the affinity is there when we see Bach giving the first movement of his Partita No. 5 a title (Praeambulum) that comes from the art of rhetoric rather than of dance (the other movements are entitled Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Menuet, Passepied and Gigue). A Praeambulum (literally a ‘walking before’) was the rhetorical term for an introductory section announcing the theme and direction of a speech or text, often calculated to attract the audience’s attention. In Paradise Lost Milton brings together the language of rhetoric and music when he has the angels pick up their harps before ‘with preamble sweet / Of charming symphony they introduce / Their sacred song’. But, in a more than technical sense, rhetoric seemed a concept of recurring relevance to this striking recital by Olli Mustonen.

Mustonen the pianist is endowed with a formidable technique and with a mind that clearly thinks, in a fashion suited to his own activities as a composer, deeply and originally. Actors were trained in rhetorical methods (of delivery and gesture, speech emphasis and enunciation, etc) that they were then to put to the service of their author’s text. But others were trained in rhetoric so that they might invent and dazzle by their own performing skills. Mustonen’s Bach – which I had only previously heard on record – is inclined to the latter kind of rhetoric; at times he seems to be re-composing Bach, rather than merely ‘playing’ him. The border between these two activities is, of course, permeable and hard to define; but at times I felt that Mustonen’s reading of the partita was on what I would call the ‘wrong’ side of that border. Sudden increases of tempo; unexpected, heavily accented isolated notes; surprisingly lengthy pauses; abrupt changes of dynamics – all had the effect of disrupting phrases and melodic lines, of concealing, rather than clarifying, the dialogue of musical voices. At other times, however, there was much to fascinate in the sheer individuality of Mustonen’s ‘take’ on Bach, and it was never less than exciting (even if that excitement sometimes toppled over into an irritated desire for, let’s say, the lucidity of an Andras Schiff or the clarity with which Murray Perahia articulates Bachian counterpoint).

With the Opus 32 Preludes that closed his programme Mustonen I found the pianist more consistently convincing. Needless to say, the technical demands of the music were handled with apparent ease. As is often the case with those working late in a tradition, Rachmaninov’s keyboard rhetoric is particularly elaborate and Mustonen revelled in it. This devil’s dozen of preludes had something a little demonic about it in the ferocity of some of Mustonen’s playing, not least in No.3 in E major, played with astonishing virtuosity and fire. The brief but restless fourth prelude was played in a way that brought out very clearly its structural symmetry and No.8 was an explosion of crisp, attacking pianism. The more tranquil or lyrical preludes – such as Nos. 5 and 12 – didn’t, on this occasion, come off quite so well. The poetic gentleness of such preludes partially escaped Mustonen on this particular occasion, though it has often been a strength of his when I have heard him previously. In No. 10 in B minor, Mustonenen was exceptionally impressive, as the almost naïve charm of the opening melody was overtaken by fierce triplet chords and the whole finally ended with rueful melancholy in the closing bars. Overall this was a rewarding reading of these challenging preludes.

But, for me, the finest and most revelatory music making came in the work which occupied the middle place in Mustonen’s programme. In one of his essays, W.B. Yeats wrote that “Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry”. There is a sense in which both Bach’s Partita and Rachmaninov’s Preludes are very conscious of their own rhetoric, fully aware of their nature as ‘public’ utterances. They may not be ‘quarrels’ with others but they are certainly very conscious of their effect upon an audience. Shostakovich’s Second Piano Sonata is rather different; this is self-communing music, music in which the composer seems less concerned to calculate the effects that his work will have on other hearers (I am not attempting any kind of distinction of value here, I should stress) than on using it as a means to self-comprehension. To paraphrase Yeats, in this sonata Shostakovich made poetry out of a dialogue with himself; and out of the interiorisation of his ‘quarrel’ with that Communist Party which, after his death, was all too ready to claim him as one of its ‘faithful servants’. The sonata was completed in a sanatorium where the composer was recovering from gastric typhoid. The sense of isolation in so much of the piece was very finely brought out by Mustonen, which was much the best performance of the work I have heard. This isolation is most obvious in the troubled slow movement, which Mustonen invested with a kind of confined lyricism, the music of a voice unable to speak out for political and other reasons, a voice hinting at truths rather than announcing them rhetorically for public consumption. The whole spoke of withdrawal, of the distant observation of external events (as in the oblique martial elements in the first movement or the same movement’s rather hollow declamatory passages) and of the struggle to see and articulate a mistily felt inner world in the fascinating Largo, in which Mustonen made the pauses and silences speak as loudly as the notes themselves. The third movement finds a more ‘public’ mode of utterance, a more recognisable rhetoric, but Mustonen persuaded one that its serious variations, so musically and technically impressive (there is some fascinating contrapuntal writing) made an essential ‘formal’ statement, rather than committed themselves to any paraphrasable ‘meaning’; such personal expression, the poetry of emotion rather than form, emerged all the more powerfully in the closing pages, with a return to the manner and tempo (more or less) of the central movement, once more self-reflexive and privately unrhetorical.

All in all a rewarding recital (for all my reservations about the Bach!) played on one of the excellent Steinways of the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, an instrument which Mustonen had, fittingly, helped the College to choose some three years ago.

Glyn Pursglove

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