Kurt Sanderling 90th-birthday Concert – 28 September

Symphony No.64 in A (Tempora mutantur)
Piano Concerto No.27 in B flat, K595
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.73

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Philharmonia Orchestra
Christoph von Dohnányi

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 28 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

“We shall not look upon his like again,” wrote Mitsuko Uchida in her tribute to Kurt Sanderling. Perhaps not, but it is good to see how close the connection is between a hero of the old school and performers of today. Uchida and the Philharmonia were very appropriate performers to celebrate Sanderling’s 90th birthday – she has recorded the Beethoven concertos with Sanderling, the orchestra has a celebrated cycle of the Beethoven symphonies, the first to be recorded digitally. Sanderling has presided over myriad fine performances and recordings and been the mentor to many younger artists.

Mitsuko Uchida showed why she is arguably the pre-eminent Mozart pianist of today. Her approach to K595 combined subtlety and radiance. Without ever producing a great weight of sound, her impeccably shaped phrasing always commanded attention, rather as if she were one of those rare people who can effortlessly make themselves heard in a noisy room without raising their voice. Think how familiar K595 is to the listener, and how much more familiar it must be to Uchida. Yet she succeeded in making it heard for the first time, playing with a blend of exuberance, depth and autumnal resignation that were simply beyond criticism. One detail in particular stands out – Uchida’s added ornaments and decorations were always in perfect taste, demonstrating as no theory could that these are an enriching of the musical texture, not an opportunity for display.

The Philharmonia did not appear to rise completely to the challenge, although Dohnányi’s sympathy for the soloist’s phrasing were always apparent. Both winds and horns had moments of difficulty, one spoiling Uchida’s miraculous entry in the slow movement; the accompaniment seemed ham-fisted in comparison.

The Philharmonia had been impressive in the Haydn. With reduced forces, and more than a gesture towards the swift tempi and athleticism that the authentic lobby have inaugurated, this was a welcome hearing for a rarely performed symphony, even if neither interpretation nor engagement with ’Storm and Stress’ were especially apparent.

The cellos, which have so important a part in Brahms’s Second Symphony, for example in opening all but one of the movements, were appropriately given prominence by Dohnányi’s antiphonal placing of violins. His view of the work was relaxed and easy-going, yet, in keeping with his recorded cycle with the Cleveland Orchestra, tended towards the anodyne. The stately pace of the first movement would have pleased late-period Giulini; the slow movement was so discursive as to lack tension. While the ’Finale’ showed far more structural awareness, it again contained moments of indiscretion; only the ’Allegretto grazioso’, light in sound and mood, was wholly successful. As homage to Sanderling, however, this was a well-chosen work – the truth and power of that conductor’s Brahms has seldom been equalled before or since.

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