Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra: Stimulating in Mozart and Bartók

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart and Bartók: Mitsuko Uchida (piano/director), Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Royal Festival Hall, London, 29.11.2016. (MB)

Mozart – Piano Concerto no.17 in G major, KV 453; Piano Concerto no.25 in C major, KV 503

‘Yes, of course I’m here,’ I tweeted a few minutes before the concert, with a picture of the programme and performers. Two Mozart piano concertos from Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with the Bartók Divertimento in between: give or take a piece by Schoenberg, I could hardly have asked for more. Perhaps, then, my expectations were unrealistic, for I found myself a little disappointed by the performance of the G major Piano Concerto, especially its first movement. I was impressed that Uchida had rethought, sometimes quite radically, the approach I recall from her celebrated recording with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra. (I have not heard her Cleveland remake.) However, I was not entirely convinced. It was partly a matter of coming to terms with the Festival Hall acoustic, I think, in so intimate a performance, but it was not only that. Nevertheless, intrigued and slightly nonplussed is surely better than bored by the ‘same old’.

The orchestra opened crisply, stylishly, but sounded a little undernourished in the opening tutti. Uchida was, I think, faster, certainly more impish, than in her ECO recording. There is nothing wrong with that, but her non legato passages struck me as odd: I could not work out why they were being played as they were, although she certainly had me listen – and puzzle. Phrasing remained beyond reproach, though, and the chamber quality to the performance as a whole had its advantages. Indeed, the concerto sounded very much the companion piece to the Piano Quintet, KV 452, with which, if I remember correctly, was the coupling for that concerto recording. Only occasionally was a fuller orchestral sound unleashed, but Uchida was – interestingly – considerably more muscular in her approach to the recapitulation. The cadenza offered an amalgam of the different tendencies we had heard, for better and for worse. I liked the lessening of string vibrato at the opening of the slow movement, as if launching an operatic accompagnato – which, in a sense, it is. Various wind soloists and ultimately the piano soloist responded with greater warmth; however, I was nevertheless quite taken aback – positively – by the frankly Romantic minor-mode playing, whether overtly passionate, or more innig. This and the finale were, for me, far more involving. They both seemed to benefit also from a more settled, more juste, tempo. (Both are often taken too fast.) The finale’s particular character, Papageno chafing at the bit, was conveyed with that crucial sense of effortlessness. Classical variation form, too often the butt of ill-considered denigration, was vindicated in the best way possible. Piano and flute sforzandi seemed to hint at Beethoven; again, I do not remember hearing the passages in question played like that before.

Uchida withdrew for the Bartók, played standing (save for the cellos), directed from the leader’s desk by Matthew Truscott – and very well too. The first movement announced a variegated, energetic (in the best sense) approach, yielding nicely at times, in almost Viennese style. There was again a happy sense of chamber scale, without in this case ever sounding remotely underpowered. The slow movement opened inwardly, mysteriously, not quite glacial, but not quite the contrary either. Its contours were well traced, with a keen sense of drama on offer throughout. There were many gradations of relative thawing and outright contrast to be enjoyed. Idiomatic, never clichéd, the ‘Hungarian’ qualities to the performance of the finale sang out, yet never dominated unduly. The relationship between solo and ripieno playing was very much at the heart of the MCO’s music-making. Bachian contrapuntal lessons had been well learned, so as to emerge as agents of liberation – just as they always should be. There was menace too, and more than a hint of bitter irony.

Amongst smaller-scale recordings of what I have long thought of as Mozart’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, I have long admired that from Alfred Brendel, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, and the late Neville Marriner. Again, I was taken by surprise quite how different Uchida’s performance here was: more rhetorical, although always directed towards its tonal goal. Trumpets and drums seemed to have emboldened the MCO strings too. Oscillation between tonic major and minor was rightly at the heart of the performance; Charles Rosen would surely have approved. The measured tempo was well chosen, providing plenty of space for the musical argument to unfold, and to be dramatised. There was not perhaps quite the dramatic conception of a Daniel Barenboim here, but there is more than one way to play a Mozart concerto; Uchida’s ‘incidental’ flights of fancy were not to be slighted, and here seemed better integrated. The cadenza offered hints of Beethoven, all to the good in this ‘imperial’ work. Uchida’s slow movement offered ‘chamber’ contrast. Mozart was cherished, heartrendingly so, but never suffocated, in this garden of late, yet not too late, delights. An unexaggerated dialectic between fragility and ebullience characterised the finale. What could be more Mozartian? Uchida again proved perhaps surprisingly mercurial, rhetorical too. Whatever my doubts about the first concerto, this was a delight to the last.

Mark Berry

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