Piano Concerto No.3 in C minor, Op.37
Ein Heldenleben, Op.40
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra
Reviewed by: Douglas Cooksey
Reviewed: 25 March, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
Theoretical Physics seems to indicate the increasing likelihood of parallel universes. In similar vein, this concert begged the question “can the same concert exist on two levels, one dimension extremely good and the other missing the point entirely?”. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra undoubtedly merits it current ranking amongst the World’s great ensembles, but this is not a recent phenomenon. Whilst the role of Eugen Jochum as the orchestra’s founder was acknowledged in the programme, no mention was made of Rafael Kubelík, at least as central to its subsequent development. What was welcome was the opportunity to hear the BRSO accompanying a soloist, especially one of the stature of Mitsuko Uchida.
It was the Beethoven that provided by far the evening’s greater musical interest although for some it may have been partially ruined by a persistent hearing-aid whistle in the first two movements – how performers keep their concentration under these circumstances is a miracle. There is a dimension of suppressed angst and latent aggression to the work’s opening which does not come naturally to Mariss Jansons; however, as well as the expected excellence of sound and balance there was also a very creditable rough-hewn quality to the tuttis, especially as the work continued. Uchida found real innigkeit to the opening of the slow movement, held on the finest thread, and the close of the first movement cadenza was similarly magical (the orchestra’s re-entry maintaining intensity with an ideal blend of weight and clarity from timpani). Besides its delicate chamber-music exchanges, this work also calls for a heft and power which Uchida sometimes struggles to achieve; however in this concerto (unlike the Apollonian Fourth) this sense of a slightly grumpy tussle with the instrument is significant to the work and were it not then a dimension would be missing. Only in the finale, here taken (until the coda) at a fairly relaxed tempo, did one feel that all was a little po-faced and lacking in puckish wit.
Would that Ein Heldenleben had been on a similar plane. The BRSO has this work in its bones and Jansons has a natural affinity for big orchestral showpieces. However, on this occasion, it felt interminable, tension sagging in the slower sections and even the opening paragraph hardly striding forth assertively. Carlos Kleiber, commenting on Ein Heldenleben to another conductor, wrote “You have the main Richard Strauss performance quality; you don’t drag the tempi”, something which certainly could not be said of Jansons. Leader Anton Barachovsky, a pupil of Dorothy DeLay and Itzhak Perlman, gave a creditably secure account of the extended portrait of the composer’s wife – all the notes were there but it did not really amount to a rounded character-sketch of the waspish Pauline gradually succumbing to Strauss’s advances, humanity and nagging bitchiness notably absent.
Elsewhere there were some outstanding solo contributions – seldom can the closing horn solo have been more radiant than in the confident hands of Carsten Carey Duffin or the cor anglais (presumably Marie-Lise Schüpbach) been more sensitively played in ‘The Hero’s Works of Peace’. Details registered too – the divisi cellos at the opening of the same section, for instance – but for all the splendour of sound the larger picture remained elusive and for that reason Strauss’s self-portrait seemed more than usually self-aggrandising rather than genuinely touching. To end this Shell Classic International concert there was a rambunctious encore – Waltzes from “Der Rosenkavalier” – to bring the evening to a rousing conclusion.