United Kingdom Beethoven, Tchaikovsky: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Bavarian RSO, Mariss Jansons (conductor). Usher Hall, 11.08.2012 (SRT)
Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4
Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6, “Pathétique”
Mitsuko Uchida has been absent from the stages of the Edinburgh Festival for a number of years now, but this concert marks a triumphant return. She is known as one of the supreme poets of the piano, and her matchlessly responsive technique seems tailor-made to fit with the sound-world of Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, his most sensitive essay in the genre. Uchida draws tone of exceptional beauty from the piano. Her style of playing seems to stroke rather than hit the keys so that the emergent sounds seem to have been caressed out of thin air rather than produced with anything so crude as a hammer on a string. She is a consummate listener, too, and responds to her whole environment. Tellingly, an eternity of expectation seemed to pass between Jansons giving her the nod and her playing of the first chord (an eternity unfortunately prolonged by someone dropping their programme in the upper circle) and when it came the first chords seemed to dissolve effortlessly into the string phrase that carries on the theme into the main exposition. There was power and drive aplenty in the cadenzas, though, with muscular drive in the first movement and a rollicking conclusion to the finale.
However, it was Uchida’s orchestral partners that impressed me most of all, particularly the Bavarian strings, the like of which I have not heard in a long time. There is a rich, fruity quality to their playing, with an opulent tone that, in the Beethoven at least, seemed to suggest a bigger ensemble than there really was. Their sumptuous tone and their formidable accuracy meant that I repeatedly found myself hearing things that I hadn’t picked up on before, and the pairing of them with Uchida’s lyrical piano in the slow movement meant that Liszt’s famous comment about Orpheus taming the Furies can seldom have been more apt.
It was they, too, that carried the chief accolades in Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique symphony. The range of colour on offer from the strings alone was remarkable, even before taking account of the plangent woodwinds or the machine-gun attack of the brass. The violas seemed to coax the first theme into tentative existence, while the difference in the playing of the violins between the first appearance of the second subject and its repetition was like going from night into day; the first time muted, tentative and yearning, while the second seemed to soar with lyrical ardour, almost regal in its dignity and passion. The finale seemed to carry a whole world of sorrow in it, with just the right level of vibrato to lend colour without sounding the least bit mawkish. Jansons, meanwhile, built the whole symphony with a unerring ear for the long view, controlling the long arch of the first movement like an unfolding psychodrama. He shaded the dynamics (and, at times, even the tempo) of the second movement to avoid ever sounding repetitious, and in his hands the finale became a tragic drama of epic proportions. Furthermore, I’ve never heard the march sound so much like someone trying to put a brave face on things: there was pomp and excitement, certainly, but also an unshakeable feeling of hiding behind a mask that had curdled into a grin. This was an extraordinary reading of a symphony that can be very difficult to pull off. Choosing Sibelius’ Valse Triste for an encore only served to point up those Bavarian strings even more.
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