Classical Album Review: Rautavaara & Martinů Piano Concertos

By Jonathan Blumhofer

In the end, maybe the best response is to paraphrase Oliver Twist: “Could we have some more, please?”

Move over, Beethoven, Rachmaninoff, and Bartók: the pantheon of great Third Piano Concertos is growing.

Actually, it has been for a while. Neither piece on Olli Mustonen’s new recording with the Lahti Symphony Orchestra (LSO) and Dalia Staseva is new. Bohuslav Martinů’s Concerto No. 3 dates from 1948, just three years after Bartók’s. And Einojuhani Rautavaara’s is of much more recent vintage – 1999, to be exact.

Both are breathtakingly beautiful and, often, freshly inventive. Rautavaara’s luminous effort was written for Vladimir Ashkenazy and, while the older pianist’s recording retains a certain authority, Mustonen’s approach here is nothing if not brilliantly voiced and strongly directed. Indeed, he’s got Rautavaara’s style down pat: the radiant thickets of notes all flow with impellent concentration, nowhere more so than in the bittersweet Adagio assai.

For their part, Staseva and the LSO provide an accompaniment that’s well-balanced and rhythmically secure. Tonally, the orchestra’s performance shimmers where it should but doesn’t hold back in the Concerto’s aggressive, violent moments.

To be sure, Rautavaara’s language has many points of reference – Sibelius, Pärt, Bruckner, Rachmaninoff, and Ravel to name but a few – but they’re fused into a wholly original voice with which Staseva and her forces are clearly sympathetic. The results are compelling.

Ditto for the Martinů.

This is another piece that looks back, this time often playfully. Echoes of Beethoven, Brahms, and maybe even Bach intrude on the proceedings. But, like in the Rautavaara, such allusions are hardly derivative.

Rather, this is music of conversation – layers of conversation, in fact, between audience and listener, soloist and orchestra, past and present. Given the immediacy of its content, it’s an open question where this piece has been all these years: the Boston Symphony hasn’t assayed it since 1950, the New York Philharmonic since 1965.

Thank goodness for Mustonen and Friends. Their performance is fluent, clean, and flexible. Throughout, there’s a strong sense of just what materials should be foregrounded and those that ought to be held back. True, by the end of it, some engineering issues crop up (the piano sounds like it’s been moved to the back of the orchestra by the end of the finale). Despite this, though, we’ve got some lively, characterful, crisply articulated Martinů on offer.

In the end, maybe the best response is to paraphrase Oliver Twist: “Could we have some more, please?”

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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