Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra glide smoothly into Mozart in Berkeley

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Purcell: Mahler Chamber Orchestra / Mitsuko Uchida (piano, director). Presented by Cal Performances, Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley, 27.3.2022. (HS)

Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra (c) Mark Allan

Mozart – Piano Concerto No.23 in A major, Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor
Purcell – Four selected Fantasias

In her 73 years, the Japanese-British pianist Mitsuko Uchida has gained a well-earned reputation as a Mozart master. That prowess, and her six-year association with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as a performing partner, yielded an afternoon of splendid music-making Sunday in the final concert of a weeklong tour of the United States that has taken them to Carnegie Hall, Chapel Hill and Princeton.

Presented by Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Mozart’s two final concertos came through with refinement and precision, and not a whit of over-interpretation. Every phrase emerged with refreshing honesty and sparkle. Those moments when the piano was front-and-center were especially delicious.

Her cadenzas, when she didn’t have to compete with the orchestra, were the highlights of the afternoon. As well-balanced as most of it was, playing solo fully revealed her command of the piano’s tone and touch, and phrases sang. Details of the rapid runs and other pianistic flourishes came through beautifully. Her own cadenza for the C minor concerto (No.24) was especially well constructed, an artful summary of glosses on the music we had just heard. It made everything feel fresh.

Conducting from the piano, placed so that the keyboard was facing the orchestra, the audience got a clear picture of Uchida’s conducting style. Favoring strong interpretive gestures, an open palm here, a grasping motion there, she shaped phrases and drew out what she wanted from the 40 musicians. Tempos never flagged, and the textures remained lithe.

The two concertos, among the most often-played of Mozart’s two dozen, take different paths. Finely judged tempos kept things moving nicely in No.23 in A major, which opened the concert. It all came off as an open-hearted conversation among long-time friends, especially between the piano and principal clarinet, Vicente Alberola. Placing the clarinets in the front row of the woodwind section instead at the back for this piece invested the interplay with a bit more intimacy. If sometimes the strings’ sound competed a bit strongly with the piano’s, those solo moments paid off in their freedom.

The C minor concerto, on the other hand, defines its seriousness from the opening measures. If this performance could have invested the slow and highly chromatic statement with more portent (to contrast with the gentle first theme that followed), the overall effect painted an appropriately dark picture. The warm glow of the slow movement was especially fine, and the individual character in each of the finale’s variations came through with plenty of distinction.

That finale, which can’t decide whether it wants to be a march or a hymn, managed to make the contrasts fit smoothly. It all ramped up into a satisfying climax before gliding into a polished finish.

Between concertos, stagehands removed the piano and the violin and viola players’ chairs so they could play a series of Purcell Fantasias standing up. The resulting freedom of movement made for an amiable feel to the music, a full string orchestra arrangement of music Purcell wrote for viol consort. Instead of the dramatic flair we associate with the Baroque counterpoint of Handel and Vivaldi, we got a series of short, glance-like reflections that a family or group of friends might play for fun. It made me think of Telemann’s Tafelmusik, a pleasant diversion.

For an encore, Uchida played the Sarabande from J. S. Bach’s French Suite in G major, a bit of tenderness that took Purcell’s general idea and made it into a moment of sublime grace.

Harvey Steiman

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