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S & H Concert Review

Anderson, The Stations of the Sun; Grieg, Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.16; Strauss, An Alpine Symphony, Op.64, Olli Mustonen (piano), London Philharmonic Orchestra, Daniel Harding, Royal Festival Hall, 15 November 2002 (CA)

It’s quite something for Grieg’s Piano Concerto to overshadow a bracing recent work and Strauss’s extravagant Alpine Symphony – but Olli Mustonen managed it! He did so not by shedding new light on the piece or by suggesting he had undertaken a microscopic re-evaluation of it, but by eccentrically making it up as he went along. Individuality is fine, usually welcome, but there has to be the perception that the performer has lived with the music, contemplated it, and developed his interpretation from the music itself. ‘From within’ is not a description that one could use for Mustonen’s immature playing at this concert.

He couldn’t have got off to a worse start. Entering early, that is before the timpani crescendo had finished, he re-entered and then made a mess of his opening flourish. From there it was downhill! Choppy phrasing and isolated stabbing accents made nonsense of Grieg’s melodies. All on a whim, it seemed, for Mustonen’s slowing and quickening disrupted the shape of tune, paragraph and structure – and soon became predictable and fatuous. It was like listening to a naughty schoolboy intent on annoying his teachers at an end-of-term concert. The slow movement rippled with unconvincing alterations of pace and Liberace-like curlicues informed the interlude in the Finale, which might have been quite effective had his wayward approach not become boorish so prematurely. This was a disservice to the music, which Harding and the LPO half-rescued without ever suggesting that pianist and orchestra would mesh.

Should Mr Mustonen read his biography, he might like to reflect on the following: "For Mustonen to follow traditional interpretations unthinkingly is uncreative, but every bit as uncreative is the performance that seeks only to be different." In this concert, Mustonen did exactly the second half of that sentence; his crassness irked throughout as he displayed a breathtaking lack of musicianship. While it is true that earlier generations of musicians play with more freedom than we are used to today – as conveyed by so-called ‘historic’ recordings – it is rare not to appreciate an individual viewpoint even if one does not agree with it. With Mustonen, nothing was thought through or related.

The concert had opened with a fairly substantial piece by Julian Anderson (no relation to the writer), which imagines "annual folk customs", many of which have died out. First heard at the Proms in 1998, with Sakari Oramo then taking it up in Birmingham, The Stations of the Sun received a welcome London revival in this excellent performance. From its upbeat opening to open-ended conclusion – suggesting another year will be ushered in – Anderson’s four-part (four season) piece invokes both the past, through plainsong, and has an attractive pastoral underlay that, compliment intended, links it to British music of yesteryear. More dominant is a kinship with Michael Tippett in the way the music dances. Melodically based, and colourfully scored for a large orchestra, Stations enjoys vivid colours and considered construction – one really senses the seasons turning and rituals enacted. An Ondine CD of Anderson’s music, including Stations, is awaiting release, and should time nicely with him being both the LPO’s "Composer in Focus" this season and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s new Artistic Director for "Music of Today".

Strauss’s Alpine Symphony, his last orchestral blockbuster, may not be his greatest achievement, but it’s full of fine things and a particular favourite of the writer. Apart from miscalculating the cymbal clashes that help signal the magnificence of the to-be-climbed mountain – the teachings of Celibidache suggest that such colour doesn’t have to be brazen to make an impact – Harding led a particularly lucid and organic account of this mighty work. If the off-stage brass was too close being positioned on level 4, right-hand side, behind closed doors (out by the bar in other words!) –could not backstage have been used better to suggest a passing hunt? – Harding persuaded the LPO to some of its most polished and integrated playing.

Harding was particularly successful at holding tension. This somewhat deserted him after the storm that hurtles the way down (upward events heard in quick-motion flashback), for when the organist stumbled in a brief solo and a trumpeter did likewise, the performance became out of focus a little. Thus the return to ground level seemed less inspired musically and pictorially, and the playing lacked the previous concentration; maybe this part had been less well rehearsed.

Colin Anderson

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