Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Brentano String Quartet
Colin Mark Steinberg & Serena Canin (violins)
Misha Amory (viola)
Nina Maria Lee (cello)
Mitsuko Uchida and Brentano String Quartet
Tuesday, April 03, 2001 Royal Festival Hall, London
Reviewed by Ying Chang
Piano concertos are only rarely performed in chamber reductions and, however sensitively treated, such reduction is a problem. A concerto part is almost invariably heroic, the soloist challenges the orchestra, or shows itself off against a diversity of contrasted sounds and textures; chamber music is co-operative, always intimate, and succeeds best when ego is subordinated to the musical design.
The problems of playing Mozarts piano concertos as quintets, even with the composers specific approval, was immediately apparent from the opening movement. Uchida was forced to scale down the capacities of the modern Steinway to suit the quartet accompaniment, while the silvery, vibrato-less tone, lent the string-reduction a further austerity. With the opening of K413 - strings providing a more percussive rhythmic spring to the pianos lyrical melody - soloist and quartet seemed to have exchanged roles for the worse. Bravura solo passages, and especially the cadenza, seemed unbalanced within the chamber texture. One feared for the lack of variety in listening to nine such movements consecutively.
The general listener is likely to take with a pinch of salt Uchidas recent claim that she is shown at her best as an accompanist, then a chamber player, and only thirdly as a soloist. Nevertheless, anyone who has followed her career could immediately hear how she delighted in encouraging and bonding the Brentanos, whom she describes as her musical children, and adopted a self-effacing role (not least in pointing the harmony and rhythm in the orchestral ritornelli). Uchida reverted to a past identity a preference for private study to performing to a public.
The slow movement of K413 was far better suited to the intimacy of chamber music. In the simplicity of the main theme - in the duetting (stately and tranquil by turns) between soloist and quartet - the validity of the reduced versions scale was revealed. Uchida has for so long had an unparalleled reputation for playing Mozart; here she could project her poise and sensitivity directly to her accompanists, who caught perfectly both mood and phrasing. It was clear also in the finale that Uchida delighted in the refinement and precise gradations of tempo and volume that the smaller canvas allowed.
K414 was convincing throughout. It has the most immediate melodic appeal of the three concertos, which allowed one to sit back and listen to Uchidas always-impeccable Mozart phrasing and the musics sunny, lyrical character. Even so, there were moments in the tuttis when a tonal-thickening was missed, as were the wind parts. Again, the stillness and enchantment of the long piano lines in the Andante, and the unaffected brightness of the finale were the most successful aspects of the performance - the Brentanos, after all, could very successfully turn the orchestral parts into deeply-felt quartet slow movements, or bring a serenade-like gaiety, but stood much less chance with set-piece expositions.
Having reached K415, would this be better appreciated having heard the concertos together, or would the preference be a piano quintet by another composer? Well, something of both. The outer movements are built-up from melodic fragments and from contrasts of tempo and dynamics, and these were fully comprehended in the sparer chamber textures. The restraint with which the soloist must play in a reduction once more paid dividends in the slow movement, where the singing line could unfold naturally, innocently, without the need to fight even the original small orchestra. But, equally, there remained something relentlessly specialised and recherché about the whole experience, as if emotional depth could never quite escape scholastic correctness.
These three concertos were written simultaneously; they provide a lexicon of possibilities in constructing concerto movements. An experiment worth making - a fresh look at a familiar body of music, a new foil for Uchidas long-acclaimed Mozart interpretations.
Theres nothing else by Mozart for piano quintet (not completed by him anyway). Uchida has frequently ended her recitals with a Mozart slow movement, so K413s served as the encore. Heard with different ears (sufficiently different that it was clear many among the audience thought they were hearing a new piece!), sensibilities now used to the intimacy of scale, and the particularity of the experience. It was a perfect coda to the evening, where the five players attained an emotional resolution and serenity.