Mustonen’s silver hammer comes down upon their heads

By Christian Kraus

Last week, in these very pages, Shira Katz took the liberty of calling Evgeny Kissin, the world-famous young Russian pianist, “weird”. Whether one agrees with this nomenclature or not, one thing is certain: when Olli Mustonen, the not-yet-so-famous young Finnish pianist, steps on stage, words like “weird,” “quirky,” “oddballish,” and such would be mundane and superficial. They only get at a level of showmanly appearance, of onstage antics, of immediate sense-impressions. But the next level of weirdness is something quite different–namely, Mustonen’s strikingly novel conception of the pianistic activity. It is a conception which, in its musical realization, deserves nothing less than the word “strange.” Mustonen’s playing is uncanny, foreign, wondrous, awe-inspiring, challenging, disturbing, and all the things that tear one out of engrained listening habits. Experiencing it is to experience cognitive dissonance, an inability to make sense. It means to wonder once again what music is. All this is because the world has not seen or heard such playing before. Whether this amounts to a world-historical compliment is hard to decide. But first, how does the man play?

Mustonen’s pianism is a blending of opposites, an oxymoron come true: it is brutal yet tender, unrelenting yet reconciliatory, destructive yet profoundly creative. Mustonen is not a softie: he strikes the piano hard and fast, almost like a percussion instrument. Rather than playing deep into the keys, seeking to create a weighty Brahmsian sound, Mustonen, as it were, hovers above them. He rarely holds a note for its full duration–often he sustains it with the pedal, plucking the keys as if a guitar-player; at other times, he prefers to disregard the written score and turns ponderous half-notes into bouncy pizzicatos. And indeed his omnipresent, technically brilliant staccato is perhaps the foremost mark of his unmistakable style. It is a razor-sharp and perfectly focused staccato that makes its way even into the most songful passages. It comes in a thousand colors and fills the entire dynamic range. It bestows on everything he plays a dance-like, joyful, playful character, one that can at times appear mocking and ironic, as if Mustonen, tired from having heard the warhorses of the piano repertoire played in essentially the same way time and again, was cheerfully unpacking his Nietzschean hammer. Not just the notes are delivered in a merciless and untraditional way; Mustonen’s destructive urge comes to conquer the pieces themselves, which can seem almost unrecognizable once the Mustonian tornado has swept by. In the two more solemn and grave Bach choral preludes–performed in their classic Busoni transcriptions–little more than the ruins of the thematic material was audible. Fragments of the melody stood next to each other, cut into bits and pieces, looking down at the chorale line, all swallowed up in the whirling frenzy of Mustonen’s razor. Little of the sacred character of the music was left in a performance that, I am sure, must have been one big mortal offense to traditional-minded listeners.

But there is, as I’ve suggested, another side to Mustonen’s style, without which his pianism would merely be capricious and destructive. He commands an astonishing range of colors and dynamic nuances and has a pianissimo that is as moving and tender as anything I’ve heard. It may only appear so against the background of Mustonen’s violence, his unrelenting assault on the musical material. In moments, when Mustonen theatrically raises his hands high above the keyboard and then flings them down only to create the most marvelously temperated, quietly glowing sounds, a kind of reconciliation seems to have been achieved. It is in these moments when Mustonen’s playing, however brutal otherwise, strikes me as strangely yet profoundly human, even innocent, as if unspeakable tortures had to be withstood before one could understand the simple, joyful smile of a child.

One problem with all of this is that Mustonen’s pianism is somewhat opposed to the musical texts themselves. His whirling staccatissimo approach quickly becomes predictable. For with Mustonen, it is not how he understands this or that composer: it is simply how he plays. But what this means is that the dialectic of violence and redemption built into his pianism occurs in ways that have little to do with the logic of the actual pieces he is playing. While certainly brought to light in always interesting ways, they sometimes remain almost indifferent to his pianistic attacks. In other words, what one marvels at when Mustonen is on stage is the pianist, and not so much the works.

To be sure, his approach did often work brilliantly for the Prokofiev selections. Mustonen seems to come fully into his own in these often quirky, very rhetorical, ironic pieces. I was not so impressed with the Hindemith Sonata, a rarely heard and very forbidding work, whose late-romantic, pseudo-polyphonic style was a mismatch for Mustonen’s razor. The Bach-Busoni chorale preludes were, as I said, almost unrecognizable: I took my own perverse little enjoyment in Mustonen’s destructive effort, but found it hard to know what to ultimately make of them.

And this is indeed the question: once one has become acquainted with Mustonen, how can we understand his pianism? Is it merely funny and interesting, or can we discern a deeper philosophical message? Is this the pianism of the future? Here, where the critic is forced to confess and prophecy, I will presently take the easy way out. Whether or not Olli Mustonen is the pianist of the future, there are determinate aporias in his own playing with which he must first come to terms. What remains, then, is patience, waiting to see if, one day, he can present us with a convincing vision of where contemporary piano performance practice should be heading.