Familiar Mozart, Led from the Piano

United StatesUnited States Mozart: Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mitsuko Uchida (piano and conductor), Symphony Center, Chicago, 30.3.2013 (JLZ)

Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 17 in G major, K., 453
Eine kleine Nachtmusik, K. 525
Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat major, K., 595

The return of pianist Mitsuko Uchida—on an all-Mozart program with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—testifies to her perennial appeal. As is her custom she led from the keyboard and brought a stylistic vitality and chamber music-like approach to Mozart’s Piano Concertos Nos. 17 and 27, making the scores come alive in ways that do not often occur when a conductor is at the helm. Orchestra members responded both to Uchida’s conducting and to her keyboard expertise.

In No. 17, while she made dynamic differentiation audible, at first the orchestra did not respond in kind, but it soon became clear that they were taking their cues from her. In the second movement, even the quiet passages included a full sound, giving a sense of intimacy—very much in the style of eighteenth-century practice. The third movement involved more intensive exchanges, and here it was possible to hear the orchestra accompanying Uchida—and vice-versa when the textures thinned. In the interplay here, the keyboard served as part of the entire ensemble, and not as the bravura solo vehicle more common in the nineteenth century.

This approach gave a similarly effective result to Piano Concerto No. 27, often performed with a conductor because of the size of the orchestra required. Yet Uchida’s attention to details allowed the music to emerge as freely as if it were improvised. The first movement flowed with style, the tight ensemble emphasizing Mozart’s colors. A strong second movement was notable for the opening keyboard solo. Unfortunately, some members of the audience took this as an opportunity to emit various sounds until the orchestra’s entrance reminded them that the concert was in progress. Even so, the ambient noises did not interrupt Uchida’s concentration. At the end of the second movement, she did not let her arms drop, and signaled the orchestra so that the finale followed almost immediately. The pulse she established kept the motion continuous through the various episodes of the Rondo, with the penultimate sequence particularly poignant.

In Eine kleine Nachtmusik, consistent with rest of the evening, the strings of the CSO treated the piece like chamber music, and took their cue from concertmaster Robert Chen. The full-bodied string textures were apparent throughout, and the precision ensemble deserved the enthusiastic response.

James L. Zychowicz