In Concert – Olli Mustonen plays Prokofiev Piano Sonatas Part 2 @ Wigmore Hall

Olli Mustonen (piano)

Piano Sonata no.5 in C major Op.28 (original version) (1923)
Piano Sonata no.8 in B flat major Op.84 (1939-44)
Piano Sonata no.1 in F minor Op.1 (1909)
Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor Op.28 (1917)
Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major Op.83 (1939-42)

Wigmore Hall, London
Tuesday 1 November 2022

Reviewed by Ben Hogwood

The second part of Olli Mustonen’s journey through Prokofiev’s nine completed piano sonatas featured crucial roles for piano tuner and page turner. On the first night Mustonen had experienced problems with the upper register of his Steinway, which fell out of tune under duress as the Piano Sonata no.6 progressed. Tonight one was at hand to ensure temperament was consistent throughout, while the page turner deserves a special mention for his busy supporting role in the whirlwind passages of the Piano Sonata no.7.

The real star, though, was the music – as Mustonen has always been at pains to point out. He is a humble artist whose preparation was clearly meticulous, but one with an extraordinary range of dynamics and the ability to think quickly on his feet / fingers. Here the composer in him comes to the surface, his thoughts on stage often highly instinctive while offering unique insights into Prokofiev’s music.

The order of the sonatas on the second night was as logical as the first – with two more substantial works before the interval and three short sonatas after, two of those presnting their arguments in single-movement form. The Piano Sonata no.5 in C major was first, a work whose initial tempo marking Allegro tranquillo was at odds with the music itself. Certainly Mustonen set about his task with a uniquely probing intensity for the right hand line, becoming increasingly agitated as the music progressed. The Fifth, the only sonata to be written outside Russia, has an unmistakeably French flavour, its Parisian origins found in languorous bass lines and harmonies aligning themselves with the Les Six school. The third movement presented an enchanted sound world, presenting impish qualities but evading any attempt to pin down a definite mood.

The Piano Sonata no.8 is the largest of the nine sonatas, capping the wartime trilogy completed in the early 1940s. Mustonen started in a dreamy mood, but soon the thoughts meandered and the music became increasingly distracted. The powerful middle section was capped by a remarkably strong outburst of feeling, passions near to the surface. The slow movement had warm lyricism and cold sorrow in almost equal measure, while the finale’s capricious theme gave way to music of raw power, with fiendishly quick passagework in the right hand and some incredibly intricate workings under the bonnet. The spectre of war lies close to the surface of this work, and its percussive clout in the faster music gives it impressive power, yet the more measured melodies made the lasting impressions.

It was fascinating to hear Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata no.1, his Op.1, after the interval. While not his first work in order of composition, this is a piece looking back to peaks of ardent Russian romanticism as well as Chopin and Liszt. The rich harmonies were however topped by signs of the mature Prokofiev to come in the occasionally jagged rhythmic profile and some spicy dissonances, all of which Mustonen conveyed in an incident-packed 7 minutes.

The Piano Sonata no.3 in A minor, also a single-movement work, looks sideways at the sonatas of Scriabin. An awful lot happens in the course of its eight minutes, from the profile of a virtuoso tarantella to an emphatic signing off. Along the way there are distinctive melodic snippets, crisply developed, with harmonic barbs and clipped comments. Later in the sequence some bell-like sequences ring out, projecting easily to the back of the hall. Mustonen’s affection for this music was clear, the sharp-witted themes and peppery harmonies brilliantly realised.

The Piano Sonata no.7 in B flat major was the logical next step, Mustonen delivering the three works with barely a pause in between. The shortest of the wartime trilogy, the Seventh is the most explicitly virtuosic, its driving rhythms making it something of a crowd pleaser. Mustonen took its outer movements at a blistering pace, the right hand somehow phrasing the quirky opening melody of the first so that it still made sense, before rolling out the barrel as the music tripped along. The real heart of the performance lay in the Andante caloroso, this curious marking of the second movement asking for warmth from the performer in what was by far the slowest music of the night. There is a deeply yearning centre to this movement, and Mustonen’s soulful interpretation felt just right. The finale could not have been more different, a hair-raising drive to the finish where the insistent three-note motif in bass octaves threatened to go right through the floor. The right hand had a breathtaking speed of transition, somehow coping with the aggressively fast tempo to drive the music kicking and screaming over the line.

Mustonen received a well-deserved standing ovation for his Herculean efforts, his incredible stamina powered by Prokofiev’s unique and instantly recognisable writing for the piano, and his commitment obvious from first note to last. As if to remind us of Prokofiev’s innocent and simple lyricism, he then gave an excerpt from the Music for Children Op.65 as an encore, capping a remarkable two days of music.

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