Piano Concerto in A minor, Op.54
Symphony No.5 in B flat
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Lucerne Festival Orchestra
Reviewed by: Peter Reed
Reviewed: 10 October, 2011
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall
The Lucerne Festival Orchestra is Claudio Abbado’s creation, and both were in London courtesy of Shell Classic International. The LFO’s ranks are formed mainly out of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, with soloists, string quartets and instrument professors invited to swell the ranks to Mahlerian, or in this case, Brucknerian proportions. The Lucerne sound, even in these days of orchestral excellence, is notably refined and suave, with the strings producing a full, glowing sound. The woodwinds are exceptional, liberated and full of character, and up for all of Abbado’s demands. The horns, in the Bruckner particularly, were to die for: a rich blend of discreet support and subtle assertion, and the brass was full of colour and attack, all on the back of some nimbly athletic playing.
Abbado himself, these days less frail and spectral, achieved a range of response, texture, colour, dynamics and perspective of chamber-like intimacy and adaptability. He probes deep into the spirit of orchestral sound and takes nothing for granted.
Schumann’s Piano Concerto was nearer to chamber than symphonic music, with Mitsuko Uchida losing herself in the dreamy embraces of caressing duets with wind and strings. The occasional differences of phrasing between her and the orchestra tactfully asserted that, in the end, this is a concerto, that there is a tug – here clearly a tug of love – between soloist and conductor. Uchida relished Schumann’s special brand of romanticism and, like Alice in Wonderland, she went innately into its gentle fantasy. She was at her considerable best in the slow movement, which she and Abbado cast as an extended orchestral postscript to Kinderszenen, beautifully crafted and completely spellbinding.
At the other end of German romanticism is the benign but complex figure of Anton Bruckner, whose symphonies continue to draw conductors into their passionate and spiritual world. Abbado is a great Mahler conductor, but Bruckner is so different – and the Fifth, the most abstract and overtly Beethovenian of his symphonies, is a really tough nut to crack. I wonder how many poor performances I’ve heard of this uncompromising work, especially the finale – its craggy structure makes it all too hard to justify its closing grandeur. Abbado’s approach was in one respect very Mahlerian in that he gave the sound a transparency and fluidity that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with God’s architect-in-sound. He lavished special attention on the woodwind, giving Bruckner’s supposed solid textures a character and buoyancy that expanded our appreciation of the Fifth’s elaborate thematic unity.
You could hear (and see) how Abbado was at the centre of the music, unfolding a force of nature that couldn’t help morph into sublime aspiration – this was brought home, big-time, by the way in which the slow movement became a journey towards the sequence of falling sevenths (a climax Sibelius would have doffed his cap to), as perfectly paced and inevitable as I’ve heard it. Above all this was a performance that made you listen afresh to this extraordinary work in all its originality, full of unsuspected detail – the way the barrage of volume in the closing bars momentarily collapsed to reveal a particular woodwind figure was particularly telling – and with an unswerving sense of direction. In short, this was a revelation.
- Concert played again on Tuesday 11 October at 7.30 p.m. with Mozart’s Haffner Symphony replacing the Schumann
- Southbank Centre