Uchida, Haitink and the LSO Exceed Even the Highest Expectations

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Debussy, Mozart, and Brahms: Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Bernard Haitink (conductor). Barbican Hall, London, 30.10.2014 (MB)

DebussyPrélude à l’après-midi d’un faune
Mozart – Piano Concerto no.22 in E-flat major, KV 482
Brahms – Symphony no.4 in E minor, op.98

My only worry concerning this concert, as I confided to a friend beforehand, was that at best my expectations, high as they were, would only be met. As it happened, there was nothing for me to worry about; they were exceeded. Bernard Haitink and the LSO opened with what was perhaps the warmest, most leisurely, most languid performance of Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune I have heard – or at least that I can immediately recall. Magical both in its panoply of colours and its unhurried progress, its drama was heightened by nagging undercurrents that brought to mind Haitink’s Pelléas and of course his Wagner. The LSO was on excellent form, its harps imparting as much delight as Gareth Davies’s beautifully-shaped, infinitely-flexible flute solo. One could both appreciate the harmonies and sonorities for their own sake, and for their place in the greater scheme of things; one could luxuriate, but actively. Wonderful!

Mitsuko Uchida joined the orchestra for Mozart’s great E-flat major concerto, KV 482. The orchestra she joined displayed in its initial tutti just the right balance of clarity and warmth, Haitink ensuring a sense of the martial that was never exaggerated, ably assisted by trumpets and drums. Uchida’s entry showed her entirely in keeping with the performance; there was not the slightest need for adjustment. Perfectly voiced, beautifully variegated, unerringly phrased, this was distinguished pianism indeed. She was not shy to ornament, whether in this first movement or in the others, but the results convinced, indeed drew one’s ear in. This was chamber music writ large, yes, but it was also symphonic: in short, it was just what a Mozart concerto should be. A nicely Beethovenian cadenza (Uchida’s own, I presume) was presented with style and conviction.

As with its predecessor, the slow movement benefited from a finely judged tempo: unfashionably a true slow, but certainly not too slow, movement, and all the better for it. Grave beauty and understated intensity put me in mind of Gluck, although the flowering of lines could only have been Mozart. Uchida’s responses to the orchestra seemed to look forward to the Orphic exchanges in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto. Again, the exquisite truthfulness of every phrase shone through. The Harmoniemusik was just as crucial, of course: lifting the shadows so that we might glimpse Elysium. The advent of the hunting finale immediately put a smile on my face: woodwind serenades and the divine ‘simplicity’ of the piano part equally responsible. It mattered too much really to qualify as ‘carefree’, but there was nevertheless proper lightness of touch. The return of the rondo theme brought greater ebullience, in just the right measure. This was surely a performance that would have delighted Sir Colin Davis.

 Brahms’s Fourth Symphony had the second half to itself. The first movement emerged forthright in Haitink’s hands, though certainly not unyielding; indeed, it sounded unusually Beethovenian. The LSO strings offered heartrending playing, especially for the longing first subject. Motivic development was admirably clear and meaningful throughout: Schoenberg’s ‘developing variation’ indeed. Counterpoint and harmony showed beyond any doubt that it is not only this work’s finale which is imbued with the spirit of Bach. Inexorable and ultimately awe-inspiring, this was a fine account indeed. The second movement was perhaps taken swifter than usual; at any rate, a sense of urgency did not imply being rushed. The music again offered Beethovenian reminiscence, in this case particularly of the second movement to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. And yet, such a processional retained more than a hint of the Bergian labyrinth in the motivic development of inner parts – which combination situates Brahms pretty well really. Not that there were not ‘late’ Romantic recollections of Mendelssohn and Schumann too – and not only from the woodwind.

The third movement was vigorous, bracingly so, to a certain extent defying expectations set up, yet in no sense incongruous. Beethoven again seemed a guiding presence. It was difficult to tell whether Haitink’s reading was exultant or angry; and that surely was a good deal of the point. Then the great finale, whose modernism, without obviously being highlighted, nevertheless shone through Brahms’s material and its deployment. Webern sounded just as close as Bach. (If only we had more performances of either of those composers at such a level!) The utmost rigour enabled both anguish and sublimity of utterance. Trombone equale and numinous yet desolate flute lines had their individual tales to tell, but nothing distracted from the principal argument. Haitink surprised, however, with a well-nigh Furtwänglerian accelerando at one point, not something I have heard him do before here. Like Furtwängler, Klemperer, and many before him, he continues to rethink the greatest works of our symphonic tradition. And if this were tradition, then it is something worth defending to our dying breaths. Brahms’s final symphony – there is none greater since Beethoven – was renewed, reinvigorated, tragic in every proper sense.

 Mark Berry

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