Monday 28 January 2008

Mustonen't hear, let alone see, Mustonen

The SCO have had some pretty poor pianists this season, mainly of the thumping variety. In part this series, Director's Notes, will correct this (Zacharius is coming, as is Kovacevich, sadly so is thumper Piotr Anderszewski). The other feature is that the pianist will conduct. There are some who have made the transition very well, Barenboim being perhaps the most prominent example of recent times. There are others who haven't: Perahia falls into this category for me, but then I never really rated his pianism much either and I don't think Ashkenazy is nearly so fine a conductor as he was a pianist.

So, to Olli Mustonen. Finn heard him in solo recital at the festival last year. He mentioned his odd mannerisms, the hands descending to the keyboard from a great height. He was not impressed. But nothing he told me had quite prepared me for the experience.

To begin with, things were fairly innocuous. Prokofiev's first symphony is a nice little miniature. Many conductors this season have mistakenly conflated volume with excitement and drama, similarly Mustonen did so with tempi. He went at a breakneck pace and the SCO kept up admirably well. The result, however, was rather dull. Oddly, though, the slow movements were much too slow, and no more interesting. Compared to Gergiev's recent LSO recordings this was poor. More interestingly, was a question of the extent to which he was actually conducting. His movements were disjointed and angular and often seemed to have little effect or to follow the music. I spent much of the piece trying to judge whether the orchestra might just be getting on as best they could without him.

The certainly were (or should that be weren't) in Beethoven's 3rd piano concerto. It was here that Mustonen made my list. I have a list, a real list in the back of one of my notebooks. It contains the names of artists that, if someone wants me to hear them again, they will need not only to pay for the wild horses it will take to drag me there but also for the restraints needed to keep me there. Roger Norrington, with his infuriatingly smug grin, colossal ego and annoying habit of turning to the audience mid-movement when his attention is clearly needed elsewhere, is one example. Norrington is unique in that when I saw him I was filled with a strong urge to punch him in the face (which I stress I did not, and would not, act upon). I'm not a violent person and no other performance has inspired feelings of violence in me, so I avoid him. Mustonen is similar. But his trick was different: he prompted not rage but nausea. The first problem is that clearly front/centre stalls in the Queen's Hall, despite being the most highly priced tickets, are useless sonically when there is a piano in the middle of a full SCO. The balance was horribly odd, the baffles placed between piano and winds can't have helped. Orchestrally, clearly it would be no picnic. Then Olli Mustonen sat down.

I'm going to try and describe the effect but it isn't going to be easy. First there are the mannerisms, the hands float a foot or more above the keyboard before descending with all the accuracy of an American precision guided munition striking the fluffy bunny animal shelter in place of the terrorist (and with results very nearly as awful). His fingers are oddly tensed like claws and his hands shake noticeably. He'll strike the keys and role his hands so that he plays with the sides of his fingers. Unsurprisingly, there is no shortage of wrong notes. Closing my eyes did no good, I couldn't shake the image.

Would that were the worst problem. There was something very odd about his notes. The duration of many of them seemed wrong. Almost as if he was playing the right tones (well, sometimes) but changing crotchet to quaver at personal whim. Like someone with a bizarre speech impediment, sometimes his fingers garbled the notes together in too rapid succession and at others stumbled awkwardly over them. The result was sickening. I sat there with my jaw gaping, a hand clutched to my face, wondering whether it might be possible to get out during a movement break. I was not alone, the door banged several times as others who could no longer stomach it fled.

Then there is direction, or rather a total lack of it when the pianist is sitting down. The orchestra, for the most part of it, are getting on with their own thing. Some of them looked downright baffled. Things were much better when he stood up, not because orchestrally things picked up but rather that he was no longer playing and thus blessed relief was provided. But it was temporary, all to soon would come the terrifying sight of him returning to his seat.

The applause was relatively strong, and for one horrible moment I thought we might get an encore. I know I have impossible standards for this sort of piece, but to even clap this sort of inept playing is beyond me. I was tempted to boo. Instead I sat with my arms folded and glared.

The second half was to consist of Mozart's 39th Symphony, but I could bear no more. Given the Prokofiev, it would probably have been acceptable, there is, after all, no piano part. But I needed to escape, I ran for the hills, or at least the safety of my flat.