Mitsuko Uchida plays Mozart’s K503 & K595, and Schoenberg with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Piano Concerto No.25 in C, K503

Chamber Symphony No.1 in E, Op.9

Piano Concerto No.27 in B-flat, K595

Mahler Chamber Orchestra

Mitsuko Uchida (piano & director; Mozart)
José Maria Blumenschein (leader)

3 of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 1 February, 2023
Venue: Southbank Centre – Royal Festival Hall, London

Two ‘late’ Piano Concertos by Mozart here but which are about as contrasting in mood and texture as any within the whole series. Mitsuko Uchida led the Mahler Chamber Orchestra from the piano with equally varied results, not entirely happily. Her tempos were all notably broad – in some cases one could fairly say slow in a negative sense – and certainly more measured than might even be expected from a more traditional and numerous symphony orchestra. When she entered on the piano the music invariably picked up with some alacrity as her always precise and crystalline playing then became embedded within its discourse. But when she actively conducted, her interventions resulted more in mannered gestures rather than elucidating the overall structure, and a separate conductor on the podium would surely have taken firmer and more consistent control over the whole span of each movement better.

With the somewhat smaller forces of the MCO, using a minimum of vibrato, her approach in the bold, majestic No.25 (1786) tended to leave the instruments sound exposed instead of engaging in a fruitful, convivial conversation amongst themselves and with the soloist, even if it was right otherwise to spotlight the composer’s characteristically delectable interjections from the woodwind. In sum, the Concerto seemed hollow and gaunt, drained of typically warm Mozartean life, despite Uchida’s exacting performance on the piano, particularly exemplified by the turn to a more reflective episode in middle of its Finale and the piano plays with a little falling three-note motif, with the accompaniment here wanly reduced to just one double bass among the string section.

No.27 in B-flat (1791, but probably drafted in 1788/9) fared considerably better – its more intimate scoring and quietly radiant mood requiring less intervention than the dramatic and volatile No.25, and indeed Uchida needed to conduct explicitly much less, so that the ensemble integrated more organically and genially. When she did positively direct, it was to incite a certain playfulness in dynamics and deliberation in the articulation of phrases that made the Concerto welcomely cheerful, not rarefied or otherworldly as some interpreters render it in awed, anachronistic deference to the historical accident that it turned out to be Mozart’s final Piano Concerto. Some general, overlong pauses were contrived, but the piano’s runs in teasing dialogue with scampering pizzicato strings in one passage winningly preserved the character of innocent mischief.

The Larghetto was played by soloist and orchestra with both the rare beauty and rapt, still contentment that are the quintessence of such similar slow movements of such sublimity by the composer. If the concluding Allegro could have been brisker, there was still, at least, a palpable lilt (reminding us that its principal theme seems to have inspired Mozart for the melody of a song (K596) about spring he composed at the same time, so again suggesting freshness and renewal, not last thoughts). Again, Uchida’s playing was of exemplary clarity, striking the right degree of percussive brilliance against the MCO’s expressive glow.

Schoenberg’s Chamber Symphony No.1 (1906) – for fifteen players – was led with almost balletic fervour by José Maria Blumenschein. Despite the music’s feverish activity, the group played the continuous score as though in one long breath of searing energy, all parts clear and distinct. But the various instrumental lines cohered as one body of sound, tellingly bound by the closely wrought dialogues or sustained stretches of musical argument among related pairs or trios of instruments – the violin and viola; cello and double bass; the two oboes; pair of clarinets with bass clarinet; and the two brass instruments. Screeching piccolo at the end impelled the work towards a frenetic climax. Alongside such close timbral integration, buoyant rhythmic animation gave the music riveting propulsion throughout.

At the end of the concert, Uchida returned to Schoenberg for an utterly absorbed, intense account of the second of the Six Little Pieces Op.19. It would be hard to overestimate her quirky bravado and superlative musicianship in being able to create so much anticipation in the audience and then hold its attention so firmly for a mere fifty seconds or so, as it oscillated between an enigmatic, repeated two-note chord, and the odd other little flourish or chord cluster. As William Blake put it, “to see a world in a grain of sand”.

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