In Concert – Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev Piano Sonatas @ Wigmore Hall

Prokofiev

Piano Sonata no.4 in C minor Op.29 (1917)
Piano Sonata no.2 in D minor Op.14 (1912)
Piano Sonata no.9 in C major Op.103 (1947)
Piano Sonata no.6 in A major Op.82 (1939-40)

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Wigmore Hall, London
Monday 31 October 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood; Photo of Olli Mustonen (c) Heikki Tuuli

Sergei Prokofiev is a composer whose music responds well to a ‘completist’ treatment. In the last decade London has seen cycles of his seven symphonies (from Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Orchestra) and his five piano concertos, given in a memorable Prom in 2015 with the London Symphony Orchestra supporting five different soloists. Now came the chance to look more closely at the composer’s writing for piano in a two-night performance of the nine solo sonatas, given by a specialist of the composer’s music.

Olli Mustonen has recorded the Prokofiev concertos but not yet committed his thoughts on the sonatas to disc. Should he do so the results will be fascinating, for he has a highly individual and uniquely compelling take on this composer’s music. His is an energetic approach, and even by the end of the first movement of the Piano Sonata no.4 he was mopping a fevered brow. Fourteen movements later he had delivered a revealing look at music whose power to reflect its time and place of composition is remarkably strong, carrying profound messages forward to the present day.

Born in what is now Ukraine, Prokofiev experienced great trials and separations throughout his life. Those tensions are felt in his music, where they are offset by a ready sense of humour, expressed through piano writing that emphasises athleticism but makes room for tender lyricism, backed by an instinct for concise yet developed frameworks in which the music can sit. As a result, pieces and movements rarely overstate their welcome.

Piano Sonata no.4 was a good choice with which to start, a collection of old jottings sometimes subtitled D’après des vieux cahiers (After Old Notebooks). Using material dating back to 1908, Prokofiev assembles a selection of inner thoughts and bittersweet memories. Mustonen expressed these first hand, taking liberties with the rhythm and note emphasis on occasion but wholly in the spirit of the music. The language, initially gruff, melted to an emotive and balletic slow movement with an expressive tune using the white notes on the keyboard. The bustling finale exhibiting a common language with the contemporaneous Piano Concerto no.3.

Like the fourth sonata, the Piano Sonata no.2 bears a dedication to Prokofiev’s friend from the St Petersburg Conservatory Maximilian Schmidthof, tragically lost to suicide in 1913. The language here is more obviously Romantic, with elements of Chopin and Scriabin, but the tart lyricism in the right hand could only be from Prokofiev, and Mustonen brought it out with often startling clarity. There was a whirlwind scherzo, like a devilish skaters’ dance, before a cold melancholy encased the slow movement, which sounded like a distant relative of The Old Castle from Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition. The helter-skelter finale, brilliantly played, took the audience on a fairground ride.

After the interval Mustonen gave a rare performance of the Piano Sonata no.9, an elusive work whose dedicatee, Sviatoslav Richter, confessed to finding it a difficult work to understand. Its music hints at a new simplicity, emphasised by the choice of C major as the ‘home’ key, but the awkward complexion of the music tells of a troubled mind, Prokofiev seemingly thrown by the end of the Second World War and yet another set of restrictions on musical style from the Russian authorities.

The faster figures in the first movement soon tired of their attempts to run away from this, but the macabre second movement suggested a restless toy shop after dark. Throughout the work, bursts of brittle melody threatened to extinguish the more songful elements of Prokofiev’s writing, though the forceful finale was typical of the composer in its power and obduracy. Mustonen did well to communicate what seemed to be a dip in the composer’s energy towards the close.

Finally we heard the Piano Sonata no.6, a work speaking directly to the wartime climate today. Written as the Second World War was raging, it is closely linked with the seventh and eighth sonatas, works that also tell of conflict, anger and desolation. The opening salvo of the Sixth was chilling indeed, but in Mustonen’s hands it became an outright assault, the treble notes biting through with such power that the ‘A’ on the piano lost its tuning as the sonata progressed. If anything this made the impact of Prokofiev’s writing even stronger, the scrunched-up harmonies raw and dissonant.

The Sixth is not a depressing work, however – as its stuttering Scherzo told, wrenched this way and that by a left-hand melody. The lyrical power of the third movement, initially subtle but then more overtly passionate, looked ahead towards the composer’s colourful ballet scores. Mustonen felt that connection, conducting himself whenever a hand was free, and sensing the orchestral connections for the voices in front of him. The finale had a curiously phrased but highly effective main theme, and when the artillery from the first movement returned it brought with it an even greater chill than before. The sonata ended in a cacophony of noise, powerfully wrought and given without quarter.

Taking the white heat out of the sonatas a little, Mustonen proceeded to charm with an encore of the Prelude Op.12/7, published in 1913 and often used as an encore by the great Russian pianist Emil Gilels. It was an unexpected treat, capping an evening of exceptional pianism.

You can hear Olli Mustonen’s recording of the Prelude, part of a Prokofiev miscellany recorded for Ondine, below:

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