Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Mitsuko Uchida

Apollon musagète
Piano Concerto No.23 in A, K488
Piano Concerto No.24 in C minor, K491

Mitsuko Uchida (piano/director)

Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Alexander Janiczek (leader)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 24 November, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mitsuko Uchida. ©Decca/SchelsIf, on paper, Stravinsky’s Apollo, one of his at-one-remove masterpieces, seemed better placed between the two piano concertos (for all the contrasts between them), then the performance suggested otherwise. Although the string-players of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe brought their customary excellence to this often-wondrous ballet-score, there was little sense of programme or theatre to underlie the whole; a lack of characterisation, ardour and bristle made this account rather business-like and black-and-white, the only real tonal variegation being when the composer asks for mutes. A conductor was needed – Alexander Janiczek started each movement and that was about it – for a one-to-one to really mine a personal devotion to music that needs to be closely identified with rather than a 28-to-1 that dissipated the music to a series of vignettes.

Mitsuko Uchida inspired playing of greater character; there was no doubting the rapport between her and the orchestra, or that the COE’s response (under her direction) matched her pianism. The A major Concerto was a total success; gentle and affectionate in the first movement (at a moderate tempo), the music wafting-in from the Elysian Fields. The slow movement was delved deeply into (played as if in an intimate drawing-room but also filling the space of the Royal Festival Hall), the concerto then concluding with sparkling effervescence.

It was more of the same in the C minor work – refined and eloquent solos from Uchida, very personable contributions from the woodwinds (trumpets and drums now added), and a dedication that carried all before it. Yet it was all too comfortable, too polite, with little to suggest underlying turmoil and darkness. Just occasionally, as the (too measured) first movement developed, did emotions intensify, as they did further in the (sadly unidentified) cadenza. And thus the performance became predictable, bland even (save for some passages in the finale that were assigned to solo strings). “Wasn’t it lovely?” a lady said to her companion. It was – but that isn’t what K491 is about!

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