JS Bach/Shostakovich Preludes and Fugues Review

BBC Review

In his almost pointillistic approach to these abstract miniatures by Bach and...

Andrew McGregor 2004

Suddenly I've hit the old "talking about music is like dancing about architecture" barrier. It's almost impossible adequately to describe what Olli Mustonen does when he plays the piano, raising his hands high above the keyboard in a way you would think was guaranteed to cause endless splats and splashes:clumsy touch and poorly controlled dynamics...yet what actually seems to happen is the complete reverse. Mustonen tends towards control-freakery on the smallest scale, imposing a form of micro-phrasing and miniaturised rubato within almost every bar in a way that can drive the listener to distraction. A Mustonen Beethoven recital is still etched in my mind, where his narcissistic attention to detail was ultimately destructive, and Beethoven's grand ideas emerged from the Mustonen mincer as a pile of perfectly-formed fragments. And yet...in his almost pointillistic approach to these abstract miniatures by Bach and Shostakovich, carefully juxtaposed and planned in a cycle of fifths, something astonishing emerges. It's a little like the first time you hear Glenn Gould playing Bach; your head may be screaming "No WAAAAY!", but your heart wills you to listen, and your spirit willingly accepts what seems like an assault on musical commonsense.

Surely the Bach Preludes shouldn't prick like a thousand needles; the fugues can't possibly survive the savage dynamic range unleashed on them here by Mustonen, yet they do, and your appreciation of the music is enhanced in the process. This form of musical extremism would suit Shostakovichs Preludes and Fugues rather better, you murmur, his 20th century commentary on Bach's genius yet here Mustonen's delicacy, the feather-light touch, the luminous beauty of the tone are all utterly ravishing, and Shostakovich's quirkiness is respected rather than exaggerated.

It's as though 200 years of musical history is rendered meaningless; while you listen it becomes harder to hear where Bach ends and Shostakovich begins, and less important to separate them. I suspect that anyone who bought Volume 1 of this project (made for RCA in 1998) will add the second volume from Ondine without hesitation. Anyone new to this mixture of Mustonen, Bach and Shostakovich may well recoil from it, repelled by what they hear. Nonetheless I recommend it without hesitation or reservation, and it should be approached with enthusiasm and anticipation, like all the best journeys and adventures bearing in mind that it's better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

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