Wednesday 7 June 2023

Terrific and intensely atmospheric: the String Quartet No. 1 and Piano Quintet by Olli Mustonen from the Engegård Quartet and the composer on LAWO Classics

Olli Mustonen, Engegård Quartet - LAWO Classics
Olli Mustonen: String Quartet No. 1, Piano Quintet; Engegård Quartet, Olli Mustonen; LAWO CLASSICS

Two chamber works by the Finnish polymath; terrific contemporary chamber music in superb, intensely atmospheric recordings

When I spoke to members of the Norwegian Engegård Quartet back in 2020 [see my interview], they were about to embark on a mini-festival devoted to the music of Finnish composer Olli Mustonen, and had a project to record his chamber music. The quartet had commissioned Mustonen's String Quartet no. 1, premiered it in 2017 and enjoyed playing it, now we have the fruits of all that with a disc from Lawo Classics featuring Olli Mustonen's String Quartet No. 1 and his Piano Quintet, with the composer on piano.

Olli Mustonen started composing when he was five and was studying with Einojuhani Rautavaara very soon afterwards! But Mustonen has always had a multi-threaded career, winning awards for his recordings of piano music by Shostakovich and Alkan as well as holding a number of distinguished conducting appointments, and he is currently artistic director and principal conductor of the Turku Philharmonic Orchestra.

Mustonen describes the quartet as a journey from darkness to light, albeit a remarkably strenuous one. The quartet's first movement, imarked Impetuoso, con passione e molto rubato (quasi senza tempo), begins with a passage of extraordinary violence, but then textures thin and we get distinct melodic themes, yet always there is a haunted atmosphere and feeling of intense underlying threat, though the violence returns in more modified form. The short second movement, Furioso e pesante, is fast and furious, busy and concentrated though not as intense as the first. Mustonen's language is tonal, but complex, on the edge of tonality as might befit a pupil of Rautavaara, and in the quartet he moves easily and expressively between dissonance and free tonality. The third movement, Grave - Ecstatico e misterioso, the quartet's longest, is lyrical and slow. It begins with a haunting melody of the heavy tread of the other strings, the mood more hesitant that affirmatory and with something chorale-like about it. This latter develops into something almost ecstatic and incantatory, but the mood at the end turns quiet and unsettling as if the shadow of the opening of the first movement looms large. This material returns with renewed violence at the opening of the final movement, but then we reach the second section of the movement, marked Con fuoco all'Ungharese. Fast and furious, with more than a whiff of Bartok about it, the result is uplifting even if the material is never quite comforting, but the ending has terrific energy.

Mustonen's Piano Quintet is the earlier of the two works. Written in 2014 and premiered the year after by the composer with a quartet made up of Christian Tetzlaff, Florian Donderer, Hartmut Rohde and Gustav Rivinius. The first movement, Drammatico e passionato seems to take place over a steady tread, perhaps a threatening march. Mustonen describes it as being related to his Second Symphony 'Johannes Angelos' itself inspired by an historical novel set in the last months of the Byzantine Empire. It is not a comfortable movement, but is completely terrific with a sense of underlying narrative. Whilst the piano part is clearly challenging it is very much primus inter pares and the strings are partners not accompanists, all contributing to the exciting atmosphere. The second movement, Quasi una passacaglia, the composer describes as 'a set of polyphonic variations'. It begins quietly and concentrated, a single string line then joined by another and another, all the time the same moto reoccurring, hence the passacaglia comment, but this is a very modern passacaglia (think Ronald Stevenson rather than Rameau or Lully). The music does not always have that steady tread, there are sections where we get closer to stasis and the texture feels as if the instruments are exploring, trying to reach a conclusion but never doing so. This element of searching continues in the finale as material from earlier in the work returns in an exploratory manner, but everything seems to evaporate just leaving the piano resonating, without any conclusion. Into this vacuum comes new material, consoling, hesitant at first, but then we develop a texture which seems almost familiar, hymn-like phrases from the piano echoed by string scurrying and soon we are off with music of terrific energy and remarkable perkiness.

This a fine disc indeed; superb performances of amazing music. Mustonen clearly has a gift for chamber music and I loved every moment of the disc. It is certainly not easy music, but there is a clarity to Mustonen's thought and a sense of constantly engaging the listener's brain, along with some brilliant instrumental writing. I note that this is String Quartet No. 1 on the disc, so do hope that the second is not far away!

Olli Mustonen (born 1967) - String Quartet no. 1 (2016)

Olli Mustonen - Piano Quintet (2014)
Engegård Quartet (Arvid Engegård, Alex Robson, Juliet Jopling, Jans Clemens Carlsen)
Olli Mustonen (piano)
Recorded 31 May, 1 June, 7-8 September 2021, Sofienberg Church, Oslo

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