Top Ear

A Mixed Blessing of a Mustonen Disc

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Jeremy Lee writes

By owning this disc and Laurent Martin’s album of Alkan’s Preludes on Marco Polo, I’m proud to say that I am one of the select few who own the complete discography of that set of 25 miniatures–a set which I admittedly am not a great fan of.  Nor am I specially attracted to its coupling, Shostakovich’s Op. 34 Preludes.  So, you might ask, why had I bothered acquiring this disc at all?  Partly, it’s due to my insatiable desire of “completeness”, but it’s also because Martin’s generally excellent account had me wondering how anyone would have bothered–sorry, tried–to better it.

It turned out to be a rather mixed effort.  For starters, Mustonen’s admirable technique allows him to toss off the most difficult pieces with next to no effort, while the more lyrical numbers benefit from his attention to lyricism.  Comparing his playing of Alkan’s 5th prelude “Psaume 150” with Martin’s, it’s obvious that Mustonen’s bolder, all-stops-out account comes closer to the exultation of the psalm than Martin’s more song-like, slightly more reined-in reading.  The Finnish pianist’s much swifter tempo (sometimes doubly so than Martin’s) in the slower pieces on the other hand really allows the melodies to sing, while the French’s drawn-out pace emphasizes harmony in favour of flow (with the side effect of making it sound as though teetering along the edge of sheer lugubriousness).  Surely, Mustonen doesn’t fail to bring out the quirkiness of both sets of preludes to fullest effect–he plays them as if they were the weirdest miniatures ever written for the piano (which they probably are).  What is more, Mustonen’s efforts benefit from a full-bodied Decca piano sound, as opposed to the hazy, constricted tone mustered by Marco Polo and its engineers.

And here come the not one but two rather large flies in the soup.  One detail that may be annoying for some is his deliberately uneven touch, especially when it comes to rapid leaps and anything that calls for staccato, or to be even more precise, leggiero playing, all of which is called for in Alkan’s Etude de velocite that is his 24th prelude.  As such, the bass line is irregularly accented, and his sparing use of pedal further exacerbates the situation, as opposed to Martin’s slower yet much more even jumps.  This detail, I believe, has more to do with his more eccentric approach than to his technique, which as I mentioned before is essentially splendid.  Martin’s more reflective approach to the Jewish preludes, such as the 6th prelude “Ancient Melody of the Synagogue”, also seems more in line with the idiom of Yiddish music.  Moreover, there is the sheer amount of slips and misreads, most obvious in Alkan’s Preludes (mostly thanks to the pieces’ musical straightforwardness), as if they were sight-read—hear that massively unpleasant discord due to a B-flat-made-natural in the last Prelude!  These jarring mistakes are all the more surprising in a studio recording, as they could easily have been redone.

But to be honest, I wouldn’t blame the producers of the recording (or Mustonen himself, for that matter) for not bothering, since both of these sets of preludes are hardly “masterpieces” on the same scale as those by Rachmaninov or Chopin.  Alkan himself wrote a set of 48 miniatures called Esquisses later on and they prove to be a musically much more successful set (Laurent Martin also recorded it for Marco Polo) in my opinion.  So, while people interested in quirky, obscure piano miniatures (or who simply want to complete their collection) may find enough to enjoy here, others should be warned:  this disc is a substantial mixed blessing.


  • Album name:  Shostakovich:  24 Preludes, Op. 34;  Alkan:  25 Preludes, Op. 31
  • Performers:  Olli Mustonen (piano)
  • Label:  Decca 433 055-2
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  76:16

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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