Review: Olli Mustonen: Prokofiev Concerto No.2 | The Flying Inkpot

Hannu Lintu – photo credit: Leon Chia

TCHAIKOVSKY Francesca da Rimini
PROKOFIEV Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Op. 16
SIBELIUS Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39

Olli Mustonen, piano
Singapore Symphony Orchestra
Hannu Lintu, conductor

Esplanade Concert Hall
Friday, 26 October 2018

Review by Lim Xin Hwee

Featuring Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini, Prokofiev’s colossal Piano Concerto 2, and Sibelius’ unique Symphony 1, tonight’s performance by the Singapore Symphony Orchestra (SSO) was commendable. They started out playing a little messily, but towards the end, the concert was marked with clean and precise playing under the guidance of accomplished Finnish conductor, Hannu Lintu. Knowing that the SSO was in good hands, I went in with high hopes.

The violins were, at times, not playing cohesively, but they still managed to keep the trills exciting. Towards the end, the brass seemed to lack agility. One section that definitely held their own was the violas; they produced a beautiful wailing sound that reeked of betrayal, pain, and desperation – as experienced by the Francesca and Paolo in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Ultimately, Lintu kept the entire orchestra on their toes.

There was an uncharacteristically long set-up before Olli Mustonen’s performance of Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto 2. The cadenza in the first movement (Andantino-Allegretto) is one of the most challenging ones in the canon, and I was looking forward to seeing how he would handle it. Not many people attempt the concerto live – not even Martha Argerich! When Mustonen started, by the first minute, it was clear to the audience how the rest of the concerto was going to be played. Adopting a pointillistic technique, he chose to play the chords in staccatos, and rather quickly. His intention to lead the orchestra was also clear. This technique lent some sharpness and clarity to the notes. At times, the dynamics in his left- and right-hand notes were not cohesive, with his left hand projecting more volume than his right hand. The colossally difficult cadenza was generally well-handled, though.

In the second movement (Scherzo. Vivace), Mustonen (right) played with breathtaking ease, though I would have liked to have heard more dynamic range. His light and agile technique brought a different, more interesting definition to this infamously challenging piece, although the markedly absent sonorous and full-bodied sounds from the pianist caused the piano to be drowned out by the orchestra at certain moments.

After such a significant undertaking by the pianist in the first two movements, the third movement (Intermezzo. Allegro moderato) paled in comparison, perhaps due to the stamina required of the pianist. Evidently tired, Mustonen failed to project a sound that could soar above the orchestra. This, compounded with the brass section that failed to supplement the strings with beefy sounds, resulted in a lacklustre and forgettable performance of this movement. There was also an evident lack of chemistry between the piano and the orchestral parts, with the pianist intending to take the piece on a more playful and sarcastic trajectory, but the orchestra sounding too sluggish to be able to keep up. I had wanted much more from this movement.

The final movement (Allegro tempestoso) redeemed the overall performance, though. The orchestra was better able to follow the pianist and the conductor’s lead, creating a tight, unified sound, which allowed the melancholic anguish of a tempest to come through. The dissonant chords played by Mustonen were beautiful and sonorous, and it became evident at this point that he was capable of producing a virtuosic sound, and that all the choices in terms of dynamics and tempo that he had made in the previous movements were intentional and calculated. The orchestra charged ahead with him, ramping up the tempo towards a booming finish marked by two beautifully played glissandos.

The concert ended with the performance of Sibelius’s Symphony 1, which was remarkable, to say the least. In the first movement, the violin solo was a standout for me, and so were the violas. The guest concertmaster and viola section played cohesively, creating full-bodied warm and rich tones. The harp also produced beautiful flowing notes in the same movement, and that was needed to build the intensity in the final movement. Lintu had opted for a slower tempo throughout to allow the audience to immerse in the painterly quality of the entire symphony, and for the slow surging of tension to arise throughout the third and forth movements. The orchestra’s sound was intense, without being too hefty. In the third movement, though, the violins failed to play together at times, which threw me off. The final movement was marked by clean playing from the woodwinds. Seeing as the ending for this symphony was unique — it ends with two somewhat quiet pizzicatos instead of loud, resonant notes — I was looking forward to see how the SSO would handle it. I thought the two pizzicatos at the end could have been done better. They were not exactly played together, and this could have been remedied if the orchestra paid closer attention to Lintu’s instructions. The distinction between the mf and p was not clear; what I heard instead was mp and ppp respectively.

I had wished the audience did not immediately leave after the piano concerto, for I thought that this performance of this symphony was such a great one by the SSO. For that, I give credit to Hannu Lintu.

Noise rating – 2.5 out of 5 
Generally well-behaved audience, other than an epidemic of coughs and a chatty bunch of ang mohs in the row in front of this reviewer.

The Noise Rating Index is a partially objective measurement of smartphone rings, 9pm and 10pm watch beeps, coughing-during-the-pianissimo-bits and other really inept noises emitted in the concert hall during the music itself. It is measured on a scale of 0 to 5, in increasing annoyance.

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