Uchida Evokes Early 20th Century Vienna in Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Brahms Schoenberg Beethoven: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Philharmonia Orchestra/ Esa-Pekka Salonen (conductor)Royal Festival Hall 1.March.2012 (RB)

Brahms: Variations on a Theme by Joseph Haydn Op.  56a
Schoenberg: Piano concerto Op 42
Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Op 92

It was good to see the Royal Festival Hall reasonably full for this concert which opened with Brahms’ orchestral Variations on the St Anthony Chorale. The theme was initially mistakenly thought to have been by Haydn (hence the title of the piece) and Brahms initially composed it as a work for two pianos. He decided to orchestrate the piece on the advice of both his publisher and his great friend, Clara Schumann.

Salonen and the the Philharmonia maintained an excellent sense of musical balance and proportion throughout. Salonen had clearly given careful thought to the tempo relationships between the variations and the work unfolded in a coherent and highly structured way. He and the Philharmonia did an excellent job in keeping Brahms’ textures light and transparent and they were able to draw out interesting musical details and features. There was some highly expressive wind playing in the fourth variation and the horns and bassoons showed an excellent sense of vibrancy at the opening of the sixth. The great passacaglia which closes the work opened with restrained and dignified grandeur and Salonen and the Philharmonia did a first rate job in bringing the piece to its conclusion with the main theme sounding out magnificently against scurrying scales.

Salonen and the Philharmonia were joined by the redoubtable Mitsuko Uchida for the performance of the Schoenberg piano concerto. Schoenberg initially sketched out a four part programme for this work and added the following titles: ‘1. Life was so pleasant; 2. Suddenly Hatred Broke out; 3. A grave situation was created; 4. But life goes on’. The concerto was written in 1942 and the programme reflected Schoenberg’s personal experience in the Berlin of the 1930s where he has forced out of his teaching post because of the Nazis and had to flee to the US. It is a 12 tone work but it uses classical four bar phrasing, has many features in common with the Classical concerto and it has some glittering piano writing, so it is one of Schoenberg’s more accessible pieces (outside of the early romantic works). Uchida has performed the work before and clearly knows it extremely well but very sensibly decided to use a score.

In the opening ‘andante’, Uchida’s articulation and phrasing were superb and the slow waltz theme was beautifully delineated. Uchida’s playing was a remarkable evocation of the carefree but complex and intellectually vibrant world of the Vienna of the early 1900s. The interplay between orchestra and soloist was excellent with the Philharmonia making the most of Schoenberg’s wonderful orchestral colours and imaginative scoring. The second movement is marked ‘molto allegro’ and is conceived as a scherzo. Uchida and the Philharmonia conveyed brilliantly the sense of impending menace and Uchida played in a very free and uninhibited way while at the same time observing the very detailed instructions in Schoenberg’s score. The third movement ‘adagio’ contains a cadenza where Uchida used a wide range of tone colour to bring out the conflicting elements of the music. The Philharmonia’s brass and strings brought out the grotesque and disturbing elements in the climax to the movement while Uchida seemed to distil a dislocated and otherworldly quality from the trills which lead to the final gavotte (not helped by some unfortunate coughing from the audience). In the final gavotte which is marked ‘giocoso’, Uchida and the Philharmonia brought out the dance elements of the music, and the quick fire interplay between soloist and orchestra was razor sharp. There was very enthusiastic and generous applause from the audience and Uchida performed Schoenberg’s second piece from Op 19 as an encore.

Salonen and the Philharmonia made a seamless transition from the second Viennese school to the first with Beethoven’s irrepressible Seventh Symphony. The work was composed in 1811 and was famously described by Wagner as “the apotheosis of the dance”. Salonen and the Philharmonia gave this seminal work a high voltage performance adopting fast tempi throughout.

The chords in the introduction to the first movement were weighted well and there was nicely shaped classical phrasing. The woodwind and violins were outstanding in the way they brought out the dance elements in the vivace and the orchestral textures were light and clear. There was a robust and energetic urgency in the playing although Salonen also paid careful attention to Beethoven’s pauses and rests to underscore the highly original modulations and transitions. There was an excellent range of soft playing from the violas and cellos in the opening of the second movement ‘allegretto’ and some wonderful lyrical playing in the central section. The Philharmonia carefully worked through the counterpart and argument of this movement while at the same time maintaining momentum and intensity where required. The scherzo had a sprightly rhythmic buoyancy and some of the exchanges were delightful, while there were excellent tonal contrasts in the trio. The foot-stamping finale was was taken at very fast pace and was rhythmically tight and cleanly articulated. Salonen and the Philharmonia brought out the joyful exuberance of the work and succeeded in driving the movement to its brilliant and triumphant conclusion with superb playing all round.

Robert Beattie