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Reviews

01 Oct 2019

Olli Mustonen's Taivaanvalot receives its UK premiere at Wigmore Hall

This recital at Wigmore Hall, by Ian Bostridge, Steven Isserlis and Olli Mustonen was thought-provoking and engaging, but at first glance appeared something of a Chinese menu. And, several re-orderings of the courses plus the late addition of a Hungarian aperitif suggested that the participants had had difficulty in deciding the best order to serve up the dishes.

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Steven Isserlis (cello), Olli Mustonen (piano): Wigmore Hall, London

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Ian Bostridge

Photo credit: Sim Canetty-Clarke

 

However, as the works progressed they cohered as a collection of individual expressions of a nation’s ‘spirit’ through musical language.

The programme was essentially constructed around Mustonen’s new work, Taivaanvalot, or ‘Heavenly Lights’, which the Finnish pianist-composer-conductor describes as a ‘Symphony for Tenor, Cello and Piano’ and which sets texts originating from the Finnish national epic, Kalevala. The last-minute switching of the first- and second-half items placed Taivaanvalot in the pre-interval slot, preceded by works by Sibelius and Bartók.

Each of the short pieces for piano which form the latter’s For Children is based on a folk melody, either Hungarian or Slovakian, which in most cases Bartók presents intact, accompanied by harmonies derived from the melodies which often eschew Western idioms, “in order to acquaint the piano-studying children with the simple and non-Romantic beauties of folk music”. The pieces, most of which last less than a minute and which have become a cornerstone of piano pedagogy, present few significant technical challenges but they do pose some musical ones.

Mustonen adopted a Romantic, rhapsodic approach, curling his hands high in the air before they fell heavily onto the keyboard, shaking his head with vigour and intensity. A fortissimo dynamic prevailed during the seven pieces he chose to perform, and at times the degree of ‘effort’ expended resulted in a rather hard, even stabbing, tone. While there was rhythmic interest and vitality, there was little of the simplicity, playfulness and effortless eloquence inherent in these miniatures.

Such intensity was more fitting in Sibelius’s Malinconia for cello and piano, which was composed in a three-hour outpouring of grief, in March 1900, following the death of the composer’s infant daughter, Kirsti. The cello’s chromatic weaving at the start seemed to be reaching for a way through and beyond the despair, but it was violently silenced by the piano’s wildly sweeping ascents and cascades. The extended virtuosic solos for both instruments palpably throbbed with emotion. Projecting forcefully, Isserlis sought every colour and texture through which Sibelius conveys his private pain, employing a wide vibrato and diverse tones ranging from gravelly to ethereal, finding both desolation and tenderness. Mustonen’s waves of sound pressed forward, while the piano’s extreme bass range thundered darkly, occasionally obscuring the cello line.

Sibelius made frequent use (in works such as the Kullervo Symphony and the Lemminkäinen Suite) of the Kalevala - the epic comprising poems, stories and songs which Elias Lönnrot compiled in the 19 th century from Karelian and Finnish folklore and mythology, and which was instrumental in the development of Finnish national identity. In Taivaanvalot, Mustonen has set the Finnish text as translated into English by Keith Bosley - excepting the final section which presents the potent magical words of the demigod Väinämöinen, the Kalevala’s central character - in order that “with the help of music it might be possible to convey some of those untranslatable, at times even hypnotic and shamanistic qualities of this poetry to an audience not fluent in our unusual language”.

Seeming initially to echo Malinconia, Taivaanvalot begins with the cello alone, spinning a chromatic line that is intensified by the piano’s entry. The vocal line begins in declamatory fashion and Ian Bostridge, characteristically attentive to the text, sang with a directness and coolness which put me in mind of Aschenbach’s opening recitatives at the start of Britten’s Death in Venice. In vengeance for the theft of the Sampo - the magical artefact constructed by the ‘Eternal Hammerer’, the blacksmith and inventor Ilmarinen, that brings good fortune to its holder - Louhi, the “gap-toothed hag of the north”, has plagued the Väinämöinen’s people with disease, sent Otso the Bear to attack them, and, infuriated by her failures, stolen the sun, moon and fire, leaving Kalevala in darkness. With increasing lyricism and dramatic intensity, the narrator unfolds the tale of Väinämöinen’s conflict with Louhi, and the efforts of Ilmarinen to forge hoes and ice-picks to free the moon and the sun from the rock and cliff where Louhi has hidden them, and a collar with which to chain the Northland hag to “a mighty slope’s edge”.

Bostridge was a compelling storyteller, conveying Väinämöinen’s quiet wisdom, Louhi’s fierce anger and Ilmarinen’s relentless determination. His unaccompanied voice compelled with its directness and provided moments of pause instilled with dramatic tension; at the close, the vocalise in which Väinämöinen heralds the release of the moon and sun was spellbinding. Elsewhere, Mustonen employs focused instrumental gestures to reflect and enhance the speaker’s emotions. Louhi’s vehement intensity, as she threatens the sun and moon that they will never be released unless “[I] come and raise you myself with nine stallions borne by a single mare!”, bristled in the cello’s fierce pizzicatos and staccato attack against a pounding piano gallop, as Bostridge’s tenor became a wild yell. Ilmarinen’s anger burned in the piano’s stabbing underscoring of Bostridge’s spiteful articulation of his adversary’s name - “the gap-toothed hag of the North” - and erupted as Isserlis fairly threw his bow at his cello’s strings when the blacksmith imagines Louhi enchained by his iron collar.

The vocal line frequently falls quite low and Bostridge was not always able to surmount the instrumental tumult at the bottom of his range. And, while there are individual moments of striking specificity of feeling, I found Mustonen’s stylistic palette a little repetitive over the work’s 30-minute span, with frequent alternation of fluid lyrical passages of folk-like melodic gestures (occasionally Vaughan Williams-meets-Sibelius) with busy, more dissonant and abrasive sections comprising ostinato-like repetitions. That said, the Finnish composer could not have had better advocates for his ‘Symphony’.

In the second half of the recital, German lieder framed Hungarian miniatures for cello and a setting of a seventeenth-century English text which the literary scholar Harold Bloom described as ‘the most magnificent Anonymous poem in the entire language’.

Relaxed of voice and manner, Bostridge comfortably adopted what are surely familiar fictional personae in three songs by Robert Schumann in which, while occasionally employing a dominating forte dynamic, Mustonen was more attentive to the nuances of the vocal melody and text. ‘Die feindlichen Brüder’ (The warring brothers) was fast and intense, hurtling through the image of the rival siblings’ rage-inflamed duel over the mutually beloved Countess Laura. Bostridge’s tenor swelled assertively with the righteous challenge to the sword, “enscheide du!” (let you decide), and howled despairingly, “Wehe! Wehe!” (Alack, alack), against a dry piano backdrop, when the brothers are both felled. Mustonen’s rhythmic bite added a dash of quasi-Mahlerian irony to ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ (The two grenadiers), and Bostridge grippingly captured the despair of the defeated soldiers at the fall of their beloved country and Emperor. The slightest pause in the final avowal to rise from the grave to defend the Emperor was an emotive ‘choke’, made more touching and melancholy by the piano’s bleakly fading afterword.

Isserlis’s presentation of four of György Kurtág’s Signs, Games and Messages - his ongoing 60-year diary of musical miniatures - was a masterclass in quiet, precise, concentrated expressiveness, demonstrating enormous insight into musical colour and pulse. The pairs of short pieces framed ‘Steven Isserlis 60’ which was composed especially for him by Márta and György Kurtág, and first performed at the Wigmore Hall in December 2018. There followed what was, for me, the highpoint of the recital: Richard Rodney Bennett’s 1961 dramatic scena for tenor and cello, ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’, which Bennett wrote for Peter Pears. Here, Bostridge and Isserlis equalled each other for storytelling prowess, Bostridge’s poetic ravings clearly distinguishing the Bedlam beggar’s lunatic and lucid ‘selves’ and slipping effortlessly between the intersecting identities. They were re-joined by Mustonen for the final work, Schubert’s ‘Der Strom’ (On the river), which offered some salving sweetness after the dramatic intensities of the preceding works.

So, a somewhat unusual assemblage of musical ‘tasting notes’ which, if not quite forming a vintage blend, certainly provided much delectation and satisfaction.

Claire Seymour

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Steven Isserlis (cello), Olli Mustonen (piano)

Bartók - For Children (Old Hungarian Tune, Round Dance, Soldier’s Song, Allegretto, Drinking Song, Allegro Robusto, Peasant’s Flute); Sibelius - Malinconia Op.20; Olli Mustonen - Taivaanvalot (a symphony for tenor, cello and piano) (UK première); Schumann - ‘Belsazar’ Op.57, ‘Die feindlichen Brüder’ Op.49 No.2, ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’ Op.49 No.1; György Kurtág - Signs, Games and Messages (‘Az hit ...’, ‘Souvenir de Balatonboglár’); Márta Kurtág/György Kurtág - ‘Steven Isserlis 60’; György Kurtág - Signs, Games and Messages (‘Schatten’, ‘György Kroó in memoriam’); Richard Rodney Bennett - ‘Tom O’Bedlam’s Song’; Schubert - ‘Auf dem Strom’ D943.

Wigmore Hall, London; Monday 30th September 2019.

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