Uchida in fine form with a Mozart classic

by Michael Johnson Michael Johnson is a music writer and critic with special interest in piano. He spent nine years on the board of the London International Piano Competition and has written extensively on music for leading publications, including the International New York Times, Clavier Companion, The Washington Times, American Spectator, International Piano and the website Facts & Arts. He spent four years in Moscow as a correspondent and also worked as a journalist in Paris, London and New York. 15.04.2017

Pianist Mitsuko Uchida delivered a sparkling Mozart piano concerto No. 20 in D minor (K.466) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons on Thursday, the eve of Easter weekend, to an enthusiastic full house at Symphony Hall. Ms. Uchida was the clear favorite of the program which also featured Anton Bruckner’s rather heavy Symphony No. 6 in A. It was a pairing of opposites.

Ms. Uchida was strongly applauded as she walked onstage, and again between movements, getting an extended standing ovation and multiple curtain calls upon completion of her concerto. Bruckner’s symphony in the second half of the program garnered only polite applause.

Elegantly dressed in a gauzy golden cape, dark trousers and gold lame heels, Ms. Uchida reacted to her adulation with grace and modesty. Her playing was impeccable by any standard, highlighted with perfect trills, dizzying runs and precise Mozartean rhythms and dynamics. Program notes by Michael Steinberg noted the concerto’s  “witty and serious play of conversation”. She understood that and blended her pianism with the orchestral parts, never striving to dominate. The concerto is an integral part of her highly regarded Mozart repertoire; she often conducts from the keyboard, and even in this concert gestured out of habit to the players a few times.

To me, the most exciting passages of her interpretation were the Beethoven cadenzas, which provided a rich and dramatic contrast to the relatively spare Mozart writing. Beethoven admired the concerto and played it regularly in Vienna. He wrote the two cadenzas from the heart, and they remain the most frequently performed of all those available to performers today.

The concerto is a staple at Symphony Hall, having been performed here previously by an A-list of piano masters – Myra Hess, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Emanuel Ax, Alfred Brendel, Rada Lupu and Alicia de Larrocha, among others.

The Bruckner Symphony, known as the “ugly duckling” of his eleven symphonies, offered an occasion for Bruckner-doubters to revisit his oeuvre. The performance benefitted from Nelsons’ attentive conducting. Reading from the score, he threw himself into the vague, romantic orchestral colorings, putting down his baton at one point to better shape the forward movement with his flowing arms and hands. In the end, after one hour of performance, he had achieved a measure of coherence to this challenging work.

The opening movement, punctuated by blasts from the BSO’s impressive brass players, is labeled “majestoso” and indeed it is magisterial. Some have compared it to the voice of God. The striking contrasts of brass and strings continue in the adagio, a sehr feierlich (very solemnly) movement that unites three themes constructed in sonata form. The scherzo is marked “Nicht schnell” (not fast) but Nelsons plunged into it with brio. I found it the most appealing movement. Thomas May’s program commentary rightly points out the “shadowy elfin touches in the winds … (that) collide against the juggernaut of the full orchestra tutti.” The brief trio movement is easy on the ears, with an extra bounce from pizzicato passages and beautiful trio of horns. More blasts from the brass punctuate the finale and brings the symphony to what May called a “joyous end”.

The Sixth had a difficult birth, never being programmed in its entirety during Bruckner’s lifetime. The self-deprecating composer, largely rejected by contemporaries, heard only two for the four movements at a concert in 1881, two years after finishing the score. Following his 1896 death, a sharply cut “complete” version was conducted by Gustav Mahler in 1899. The authentic full version finally arrived in Boston in 1969, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

 

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This review first appeared on Boston Musical Intelligencer, www.classical-scene.com

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