It would appear that concert-goers are still scared by the name of Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953), which might explain how a near full-house at the Victoria Concert Hall that greeted Imogen Cooper's recital of Chopin, Schumann and Schubert on June 25 had almost halved by the time of Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen's recital on the evening on June 26. What he offered was unprecedented in Singapore: an all-Prokofiev programme comprising five of the 20th century Russian composer's nine piano sonatas.
To the less initiated, Prokofiev equates with loudness, percussiveness, abrasiveness and dissonance. Mustonen was to partly dispel that notion, but did not always help his cause by the affectation and mannerisms in his playing. He used very little sustaining pedal, prefering a dry and tinny sound as if to accentuate the music's acerbic qualities, and then placing accents, often hammered out like a dentist's drill, in spots where one would least expect them.
Add these to his playing with the aid of scores, the finicky tendency of his right hand to quiver and quake just before descending on the keyboard, and his sitting on a stool that had been raised to its highest limit and further placed on a wooden board (like a Glenn Gould in reverse). All these were recipe for a potential artistic disaster. Despite the I-do-as-I-please stance which occupy piano narcissists such as Ivo Pogorelich, Lang Lang and Tzimon Barto, he kept the audience spellbound and enthused, which was no mean task.
The first half opened with Fifth Sonata in its earlier version (with a quieter ending), which was mostly congenial in a neoclassical way, but with a brittle central movement played with so much staccato as if he was daintily skipping through a floor of broken glass. The monumental Eighth Sonata that followed, arguably the greatest work of the set, came close to a travesty.
Those who grew up with Sviatoslav Richter or Emil Gilels' classic recordings would have found Mustonen's version a caricature of the masterpiece, sickly and grotesque. The first movement's bittersweet lyricism was run roughshod but its development was undeniably thrilling. The second movement's gavotte was soggy rather than crisp and the athletic finale becoming a breathlessly incoherent race to the finish line. At least he was not boring.
The second half began with two single-movement sonatas that played for under eight minutes each. The First Sonata, a student work, was lathered with so much romanticism and rubato that it began to sound like Tchaikovsky or Rachmaninov. The penchant for exaggeration was even worse in the popular Third Sonata, which despite its compactness was strangely shapeless. Young pianists who play like this will be ejected in the first round of any competition, anywhere.
As if reserving his best for the last, the Seventh Sonata - Prokofiev's most popular - was a total triumph. The work is already so over-the-top, and indestructible like a Soviet T-34 tank, that any overstatement would scarcely be possible. Here all the excesses Mustonen could muster just aided its inexorable narrative.
Its impression of a war juggernaut was totally apt, and the tolling bells of the slow movement a memorial to total war and utter desolation. The notorious precipitous finale was taken a breakneck speed and he did not let up for a single moment until its romping bitter end. The tumultuous applause was totally deserved, and two Prokofiev miniatures as encores - the harp-like Prelude (Op.12 No.7) and the March from The Love For Three Oranges - completed a bizarre but surprisingly rewarding evening's fare.