A provocative approach to Beethoven and Olli Mustonen’s new Sextet at BTVN WOCHE 2020

GermanyGermany BTVN WOCHE [4] – Beethoven and Mustonen: Meta4 (Antti Tikkanen, Mina Pensola [violins], Atte Kilpeläinen [viola], Tomas Djupsjöbacka [cello]), Tabea Zimmermann (viola), Janne Saksala (double bass), Olli Mustonen (piano). Kammermusiksaal Hermann J. Abs, Bonn, 9.2.2020. (MB)

Beethoven – Violin Sonata No.8 in G major Op.31 No.3; String Quartet no.5 in A major Op.18 No.5; String Quartet No.16 in F major Op.135

Olli Mustonen – Sextet (world premiere)

BTVN WOCHE 2020 took a different path from predecessors, offering in Beethoven’s anniversary year his music alone – ‘Beethoven Pur’ – in order to present the entirety of his chamber music. However, no such celebration would be complete without at least a glance to the present and future, so for its final instalment, Tabea Zimmermann’s final concert as artistic leader, we were treated also to the world premiere of a newly commissioned work from Olli Mustonen, a Sextet for two violins, two violas, cello, and double bass, the string quartet Meta4 joined by Zimmermann and Janne Saksala.

First, however, we heard Antti Tikkanen and Mustonen as pianist for Beethoven’s Violin Sonata, Op.31 No.3. A first movement infused with nervous energy, skittish and excitable even to the point of violence both confounded reasonable expectations and set the tone for much that was to follow, both in this work and in the concert as a whole. The second movement was likewise full of contrasts, both within and between sections, however defined. I confess that I wondered initially whether it were simply too much, but it grew on me – and far better the shock of the new than comfortably derivative Schlamperei. There was no doubting that both these musicians cared. Ebullient, extrovert, highly insistent, the finale proceeded somewhat in the vein of the first movement, yet fulfilling nonetheless its structural role. This was, then, like Meta4’s performances in an earlier concert, as well as those to come, a highly rhetorical reading the likes of which I should not necessarily want to hear often, but which seized the moment for itself.

The Op.18 No.5 Quartet proved freely unpredictable, as by now I had learned to expect. Whether I could quite discern a line in the first movement was at best an open question, but such rediscovery was never dull. A similarly free second movement seemed to cohere better, its drunken, rustic trio full of charm and wit. One needed to listen intently, but so one should. The minuet’s reprise, heard through the trio, proved a little crazier still. (Largely) winning eccentricity characterised the third movement, traversing an extraordinary range of emotions, styles, possibilities. This, I felt, truly got to the heart of the players’ vision: a divine and at times rambunctious comedy. The helter-skelter creation of euphony and contest between euphonies heard in the finale proved quite a ride, fascinating and, I think, revealing so long as one held on tight.

Mustonen’s three-movement Sextet was clearly intended to be heard with and in relation to Beethoven. A meta-work? Most probably, but that doubtless only rephrases the question(s). The angular rhythms of the opening suggested Beethovenian gesture reimagined, subsequently balanced and/or contrasted with a more ‘feminine’ – to employ nineteenth-century gendered language – second subject equivalent, which nonetheless seemed to grow from what we had heard before. What I learned immediately after formulating that impression, however, was that it was better to listen on whatever the work’s own terms might be, for that Beethoven comparison quickly proved unhelpful, indeed quite wrong. We may still often find our bearings in the musical world with a Beethovenian compass – more often than not, the ‘Beethoven’ of the later nineteenth century – but at some point we need to let go. Will ‘Beethoven’ let us, though? Material related to those opening gestures kept on returning; I even fancied I heard something related to the Fifth Symphony. Ears and memories can (productively) play tricks. Then came a glacial close, with little or no harmonic change.

Beethovenian derivations became clearer in the second movement; or was I now listening differently? What did those ghosts of Beethoven scherzi mean? What could they mean, perhaps above all that of the Ninth Symphony? And did they not always possess more potential meanings than any one performance or reading would allow? Accompagnato chords in remembrance of the entry of the voice in the Ninth heralded the third and final movement. Answers were different, if not necessarily unrelated. Again, has that not always been the case for ‘Beethoven’? How do we connect fragments, remembered or misremembered? And who, as composers, performers, listeners, and yes, scholars too, are ‘we’? After all, Beethoven’s music has never gone out of fashion, never been neglected. A little violence here and there may be just what it needs. Then, to rebuild or not?

If hardly ‘traditional’, whatever that may now mean, the first movement of Beethoven’s final quartet, Op.135, seemed less wilful and, more importantly, more convincing in its liberties than that of Op.18 No.5 had. Or was that a matter of having been preceded by the Mustonen Sextet? How could I ever really know, and why should I care? Whatever the answers to those unanswerable questions, Beethoven’s musical procedures here seemed clearer to me, although, this music being what it is, there was always much to challenge. The music seemed from the outset to be developing themes of which we had prior knowledge: in medias res, however much we might cling to the idea of ‘exposition’. A second movement of kinetic energy proved so much of a whirlwind that a vortex beckoned, yet never quite materialised. (Should that be dematerialised?) Seraphic fragility that nonetheless found strength to construct something from itself characterised its successor. Then came the ultimate question, both answerable and not: ‘Muß es sein?’ This was music on the brink, even if we knew not of what, the query followed by release and intensification. The path hereafter would be difficult though never obscure. There was struggle to be had, yet on one level, at least: ‘Es muß sein’.

Mark Berry

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