Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen, who is also a composer and conductor, has been a major figure on the international scene for nearly thirty years. He has made a number of critically acclaimed recordings as a pianist, several involving works by Prokofiev, including the Third Concerto, the sonatas for violin and piano, Visions Fugitives and a suite from Cinderella. He has also composed a cadenza for the Prokofiev Concertino for Cello and Orchestra, a work that was left incomplete by the composer at his death, but finished by other hands. He has also performed all five Prokofiev piano concertos in concert, and so it is safe to say Mustonen has plenty of familiarity with Prokofiev's music. That shows in these strong performances of what is presumably volume one in a complete cycle of the five Prokofiev piano concertos.
Mustonen has a distinctive keyboard style, and is one of a very few pianists whose playing is instantly recognizable. You notice how he exhibits an odd way with dynamics, often suddenly softening a note at the end of a phrase or even in the middle of a phrase. Take his entry in the Third Concerto, for example, and notice his highly individual rendering of the main theme, how in several places he shows this tendency to suddenly soften a note. But then, as if to balance things, Mustonen also accents notes unexpectedly throughout his performances. So, yes, he has his eccentricities, but that said, his interpretation of the Third is shaped nicely, with moderate to slightly expansive tempos and a deft sense for Prokofiev's sometimes pungent but sometimes lush lyricism, as well as for his energetic and playful music.
But let me make this review easy on both me and the reader: you can go to Youtube, and search "Prokofiev Mustonen" to watch a live performance, from November, 2014, of the Third Concerto featuring Mustonen with this same conductor and orchestra. The concertos on this Ondine CD were recorded in March, 2015 ( #1) and May, 2015 ( #3 & 4). So, you can certainly get an idea of what Mustonen's approach is to Prokofiev and whether you'll like this disc. To me, Mustonen doesn't displace Byron Janis, Cliburn, Argerich (with Dutoit), Horacio Gutierrez and perhaps others in the Third, but he gives a vital and very colorful performance nonetheless. If you prefer a more lyrical approach in the first and third movements, you may actually favor Mustonen over the others.
Let me say that his performance of the Prokofiev First may be his strongest effort on the disc: for once we have a pianist who doesn't rush or overpower this youthful work. Mustonen's First can rank with the finest versions, by Richter, Argerich, and Ashkenazy, different as it is from all those. Mustonen's take on the Fourth is also very convincing, even if it does not surpass Serkin's, which is to me the benchmark in this left hand-only work. Still, Mustonen holds his own against most of the other competition in this concerto, which includes Bronfman, Ashkenazy, El Bacha, John Browning and others.
Hannu Lintu provides excellent support for Mustonen and the Finnish RSO plays Prokofiev as well as most of the better Russian orchestras. Excellent sound and fine album notes round out this splendid Ondine disc.
Copyright © 2016, Robert Cummings