The Soul of Uto Ughi

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, Beethoven, Saint-Saëns, Bizet / Sarasate, RavelOrchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia Conductor, George Pehlivanian, Uto Ughi (violin).  Sala Santa Cecilia, Parco della Musica Rome   23.07.2015. (JB)

 Classical pops?  My heart sinks at the prospect.  Could anything be more painful than a whole programme of music which has been battered to death by repetition?  Found everywhere, live and recorded, seemingly adored by the crowds (that in itself makes me suspicious).  Could there ever be such a sure recipe for mindlessness? I’m told that that is why folks adore it: they don’t have to think.  They do like having to queue for their ticket.  By spurious logic they argue that the crowds give them a sense of belonging.  And belonging to something exclusive.  After all, it’s “classical” isn’t it?  What’s not to like about that, you snob, they ask me.

But wait.  I see that Uto Ughi is playing most of these pieces.  Aha!  I’ll join the queue.  Maestro Ughi couldn’t be dull or mindless if he tried.  He wouldn’t even know how to . to death?

His first piece was the Beethoven Romance in F Op. 50, no.2.  This is all about beauty of tone.  And he established it in the opening note which was first arresting in its simplicity and plainness.  But then, almost imperceptibly, he breathed into it the most astonishing warmth of sound ever heard from a violin.  This is accomplished   by subtly timed, minute variants of vibrato.  O really? he would say if he read this. We are still on the opening note by the way.  But this is an opening note, which tells you what is in the rest of the piece.  Rather like a good opening sentence which gives you the novel in embryo: Mrs Dolloway said she would buy the flowers herself.  Having struggled to find that sentence, Virginia Woolf knew that the rest of the novel would fairly well write itself.  A mere explanation and expansion of Mrs Dalloway.  Same with Uto Ughi’s  Beethoven.

Ughi’s playing is strikingly physical but also nearly the opposite: ethereal as if it is coming from outside the player.  The interplay where the two qualities unite makes the Ughi uniqueness.  Lushly sexy and delicately floating.  He would say he is only the instrument through which the music passes.  Well yes.  But what an instrument!  He has no problem in turning the violin into a viola or even a cello.  Mind and body of the player become one through his instrument and always at the devout service of the composer.

If this is starting to sound religious, it is.  The mind and body as a single entity is, of course, an oriental concept.  Some years ago when I was studying Himalayan Buddhism, he suggested we should visit together some of the monasteries of Northern India.  I never dared take him up on this suggestion.  I would never have been able to keep up with his legendary energy (he is also younger than me) nor his hyperactive intellect: he is particularly good on the intellect of emotion.  It is exactly that which he feeds to grateful audiences.  His Beethoven Romance, perfectly nuanced, was delivered with astonishing generosity.  That too is Ughi.  He plays every piece as though it might be his last.

Next up was the Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso of Saint-Saëns where the composer’s wit and charm are to the fore.  Saint-Saëns likes playing  with musical ideas and the child in Maestro Ughi steps forward to deliver this.  Andante malinconico says the composer ironically.  But Ughi finds the courage to deliver it as it is.  This is flirting with the music and the audience.  And the maestro is a good flirt: the giving and withholding are perfectly balanced.  Of course, at the Allegro there is an opportunity to let rip.  Knowing this, the composer has added ma non troppo: in other words, keep the balance.  So this becomes a virtuoso tightrope trick.  And no one has every quite struck the balance like Ughi.

The evening opened with the Barber of Seville overture.  I was first impressed by George Pehlivanian’s faster-than-usual tempo.  But there were soon moments when he failed to hold the orchestra together as well as some pretty rough edges where Rossini calls for clean delivery.  In fairness, Pehlivanian did not have the orchestra’s best woodwind players (some major disasters here).  Presumably those outstanding players were already on summer leave.

They were sorely missed also in the William Tell overture, which followed the two violin pieces above.  The orchestra has played this music –including various recordings- with Antonio Pappano.  Pehlivian could do worse than follow the orchestra on this, which is more or less what he did.  The result was mediocre.  But it was applauded to the sky by the mediocre audience. So there.

The most serious orchestral absence was the side drum player.  Ravel’s Bolero ended the evening.  I know that the regular young percussion player can play the part to perfection.  It is easily the most monstrously difficult part for the instrument ever written.  I was once in a commission for another orchestra in which Andrea presented himself.  Of the ten candidates he was the only one who played it to perfection and the only one we put forward.  If you don’t have the right wrist technique with the sticks to sustain the repeated rhythm with a carefully measured crescendo then the whole piece collapses.  Andrea’s substitute didn’t so the piece disintegrated.  Rhythmic insecurities throughout.  But fear not.  It was greeted at the end with a mighty ovation.  Something charming in that maybe?  By Wonderland logic that is a real possibility.

Maestro Ughi opened the second half with his much-performed Fantasia on Themes of Carmen  by Sarasate. He once told me that he had some gypsy music in his veins.  Well yes sir, it sounds!   Here his tone becomes almost frighteningly earthy as well as unapologetically sexy.  Much more so than the drier, matter-of-fact sounds of the great Spaniard’s own recording.  More than ever there was the feeling of the gods passing through him to arrive at us.  And whatever gods these are they are serving him well.  And us.

An encore of the famous Paganini A minor caprice brought the violinist’s contributions to an end. Virtuoso as needs be but also profoundly musical.

Jack Buckley



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