Olli Mustonen (b. 1967)
String Quartet No 1 (2016) [21:50]
Piano Quintet (2014) [21:53]
Engegĺrd String Quartet
Olli Mustonen (piano)
rec. 2021, Oslo
LAWO LWC1243 [43:48]
“Mustonen's style is tonal, rhythmically pungent, and often witty, with elements of pastiche and few pretensions beyond superior entertainment.” So wrote the journalist Jessica Duchen. To be fair, that was in 2002, when Mustonen, in his mid-thirties at the time, was best known for his compelling, if sometimes eccentric, performances as a piano soloist. Since then, Mustonen has become much better-known as a composer – indeed I am a little surprised that Oxford Online haven’t updated the article from which Duchen’s quote was taken – and, as anyone listening to this disc will testify, he can certainly no longer be described as having ‘few pretensions beyond superior entertainment’! These are two gritty works, which explore their media in interesting and sometimes arresting ways.
In the booklet notes, Mustonen acknowledges the influence of Bartók, which is certainly apparent in some of the textures, rhythms and melodies of these two pieces. Shostakovich is, again unsurprisingly, an influence too, especially in some of the quicker passages. This is the first time I have had the opportunity to hear the Engegĺrd String Quartet, who commissioned this quartet from Mustonen. They are a stunning ensemble, and play this often outrageously difficult music with total stylistic and technical grasp.
The quartet, written in 2016, has a fairly conventional general profile; a substantial and dramatic first movement, a rapid second (Furioso e pesante), a slow and pensive third, and a finale that seeks to resolve the tensions found in the earlier parts of the work. This final movement, however, seems to get stuck in a bit of a rut; no less a composer than Dimitri Shostakovich confessed that he sometimes found writing fast music problematic. Mustonen’s finale (with its strange tempo indication Con fuoco all’ungharese – ‘fiery in Hungarian style’, a clear nod in the direction of Bartók) does its best, but struggles to achieve real momentum.
This is Mustonen’s first attempt at a string quartet, and as such, it is a brave and spirited piece of work. I wasn’t fully convinced, though; it feels like a bit of a re-run of the more stormy and dystopian of the Bartók and Shostakovich works in the genre. Though it is titled ‘String Quartet
No 1’, there doesn’t appear to be, from what I can find, any successor as yet. I hope there will be another, and that Mustonen can build on the many successful aspects of his first effort, notably his very accomplished scoring for this demanding medium.
I found the Piano Quintet, on the other hand, a more fully convincing piece, perhaps because it involves the composer’s own instrument, the piano. There are three movements, all around 7 minutes’ duration. Again, influences aren’t hard to identify, and Stravinsky comes to mind when the strings play their repeated scrunchy chords near the beginning. Mustonen sets out his stall of musical ideas with great clarity – those string chords interrupt slowly unfolding melodies in the piano, then that gives way to a more frantic rhythmic passage, again to-ing and fro-ing between piano and quartet. The tension is cranked up in long rising sequences, a characteristic of this composer’ work.
That fine opening movement is followed by a Passacaglia – essentially variations on an angular theme announced by the violin. This gives rise to some wonderful textures – beautiful writing for both piano and quartet. And the finale succeeds where that of the quartet, I felt, did not quite make it. After a thoughtful opening section, with backward glances at the first movement, the pace accelerates to a brilliant and exciting gallop to the end.
I don’t hesitate to recommend this disc; the playing of all participants is superb, and the recording is of the highest quality too. Mustonen is a most intriguing composer, in that he appears quite happy to be seen within the existing traditions of chamber music, yet is developing his own personal and distinctive style of writing.
Published: November 21, 2022