Widely known for his cultured, committed pianism, Olli Mustonen continues to nurture and mature his own thoughtful, post-Romantic compositional voice, drawing enormous inspiration from his native Finland. Consider his two most recent symphonies, both of which drink deeply from the wellspring of Finnish literary tradition.
Dating from 2013, Symphony No. 2, Johannes Angelos is based on the eponymous 1952 novel by Mika Waltari, set during the fall of the Byzantine empire. Cast in traditional four-movement form, the work opens with what Mustonen calls “a sort of apotheosis of Byzantine mysticism”.
The Panagia of Blachernae evokes a church and icon in Constantinople in which bells and harp summon up the other-worldly, only to be swept away by thumping drums and brass fanfares as the tumult of St Spyridon’s Day takes hold. In this imaginative recreation of ancient history, the listener is aware that Mustonen could not resist the appeal of that eminent colourist, Respighi.
At the Church of the Holy Apostles sees the restive rising and falling of repeated figures creating an intense mood of supplication and foreboding ahead of the finale Aleo e polis (The city is lost) in which an inexorable march heralds the inevitable destruction of Constantinople underlined by clanging bells and gaudy brass. A quiet postscript alludes to the novel’s two romantically entwined protagonists, now consigned to the afterlife.
Recast from a 2016 work scored for tenor, cello and piano, Symphony No. 3 Taivaanvalot (Heavenly Lights) is based a tale from the Kalevala, Finland’s epic collection of runic poems that so profoundly inspired Sibelius. In a single movement the symphony recounts the legend of Louhi, the mistress of Pohjola the villainous ruler of Kaleva, who imprisons the sun and the moon leaving the good burghers of the town in the dark. Ilmarinen the blacksmith and Väinämöinen the wizard come to the rescue and light is once more restored.
With his customary dramatic flair and crystalline diction, tenor Ian Bostridge single-handedly takes on this contrasting set of characters with an appealing breadth of colour and expression.
Louhi, “the gap-toothed hag of the North” is brilliantly personified and deftly contrasted against Ilmarinen and the narrator.
Set in a sound world where the Nordic timbres of Sibelius are discernible, English music also makes its presence felt in the symphony, strongly flavoured by Vaughan Williams’ solid harmonies and to a lesser extent the organisational and textural cleverness of Britten. While Mustonen’s unique synthesis of these stylistic traits is effective, it is his own expert sense of drama that persuasively pulls the listener into the music’s mythical universe.
Mustonen elicits top-drawer playing from the Turku Philharmonic and Ondine’s engineering captures the orchestra’s marriage of technical brilliance and warm ensemble.
A masterly musical chameleon, Mustonen uses his depth of stylistic knowledge and his wide-ranging timbral palette to create symphonic canvases that are bound to have wide audience appeal. In doing so, he continues to explore and to develop the vast, intriguing riches of Finland’s extraordinary cultural heritage for succeeding generations.
Composer: Olli Mustonen
Works: Symphonies Nos. 2 & 3
Performers: Ian Bostridge t, Turku Philharmonic Orchestra/Olli Mustonen
Label: Ondine ODE14222