With yet another masterstroke of artistic planning, the Australian Chamber Orchestra invited poly-musician pianist, conductor and composer, Olli Mustonen, to create a challenging and, ultimately, highly satisfying chamber music program. It was challenging because of the barrage of imaginative musical ideas that the Finnish guest artist and his five Australian colleagues poured on their audience. The performers allowed their creative minds free rein to play chamber music; as a result, the tried and proven ways of articulations, balances, dynamics, forming melodies, choosing tempos were all reconsidered and often recreated. Some of these ideas sounded outrageously innovative and a few even over the top; however, not a minute passed in this splendid musical feast without artistic provocations, albeit carefully measured and delicately performed.

Olli Mustonen
© Julian Kingma

It began with Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde (The Creation of the World), Op.81a, originally for eighteen instrumentalists, but here, in the composer’s transcription for piano quintet. The opening melody on the strings was played completely bereft of vibrato, contrasting with Mustonen’s almost acerbically clear articulation as he formed his single notes on the piano. Lush sounds soon followed, offering intimacy, and such strong juxtapositions became a recurring element of the evening’s interpretations. In the later movements, the music was stylishly infused with swung rhythms and feelings of blues; jazz was a powerful influence on Milhaud’s composition in the 1920s. One of the key characteristics of the pianist’s highly individual and effective artistry became a powerful influence on the overall sound: he often brought out certain notes or melodic lines unusually strongly, while his other fingers played much softer and with the utmost delicacy.

Mustonen’s own Piano Quintet was performed in Australia not long after its premiere in 2015, but this was the first time when the composer himself performed the piano part Down Under. Even at first hearing, its powerful beginning, homophonic string sounds and distinctly separated sections promised a meticulously thought through composition, which, while firmly rooted in classical traditions, is very much of our times. Next to clashing dissonances, there were sublime themes in sublime performances, with one (and by no means the only) example being the second subject’s presentation by the second violin, the only member of the ensemble who is not a principal player in the ACO. The ensemble work was meticulous, despite less than the normal amount of rehearsal time being available, due to illness. Their technique served the music and not the other way round and the composition provided one of the rare moments in contemporary music when one would have been quite interested in listening to the work again, almost immediately.

The quintet
© Julian Kingma

Franz Schubert’s Piano Quintet in A major “The Trout”, D.667 was the only pre-twentieth century work on the program, with Maxime Bibeau joining the ensemble on double bass. The first movement’s lean and transparent opening hailed a performance singularly different from the traditional (if equally beautiful) approach. Subtlety of articulation of notes, themes and characters gained key importance here. Pairs of notes differed regularly in emphasis and tone in an astonishing way. Mustonen’s musicianship is idiosyncratic in the extreme. His use of the pedal is deliberately sparse, lending lightness to his playing, which widens the usual gap dividing soft and loud sounds, when coupled with his exquisite balance between what notes he considers of main and lesser importance. The string players enthusiastically participated with the same artistic attitude, resulting in some of the quietest moments I have ever heard in this glorious work; yet I never felt robbed of a single lost note.

The famous variation movement excelled with its omnipresent rubato, followed by the agile intensity of the finale. No wonder that after the last chord, an enthusiastic listener broke the stunned silence by shouting aloud: “Oh yes!”