BEETHOVEN Complete Piano Concertos (Mitsuko Uchida)
Mitsuko Uchida’s previous recording of the Beethoven piano concertos, with Kurt Sanderling and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (Philips, 5/96, 4/98, 9/99), was largely a disappointment. Aside from a vibrant account of the Fourth Concerto – the only one recorded live – the rest is magisterial at best, but more often than not Uchida seems aloof. What I find striking is her overarching concern with texture and sonority, as if she were looking at Beethoven through Debussy’s eyes.
I hear something similar in this cycle from Berlin where, again, Uchida takes enormous care over articulation, clarity, voicing and dynamics. And this is true in the simplest passages as well as the most virtuoso. Take, for example, the series of ascending scales in the Largo of the Third Concerto (at 7'40"), which she transforms into something extraordinary merely by playing them with absolute evenness – except at the very top, where she tapers ever so slightly, like oh-so-gently lifting of fingers at the end of a caress. Indeed, every one of the slow movements is breathtaking. The passage of interlocking demisemiquavers in the middle of the Second’s Adagio – Beethoven here breaking from the Mozartian model in the most bewitchingly subtle way – is in itself a study in texture, the piano’s aerial flitting and pizzicato strings contrasted with the exquisite richness of the wind’s cantilena (listen starting at 3'48").
Unlike the earlier recordings, however, there’s no question that here Uchida is thoroughly engaged throughout. With Sanderling, she seemed content to co-star; this time around she seems to relish playing both protagonist and instigator, sometimes even nudging Rattle and the Berliners along. Vitality and humour abound in the outer movements of the early concertos. In the finale of the First, Uchida’s bristly staccato suggests giddiness, while in the first movement of the Third, she communicates a poignant sense of inner turmoil. I do wish she was more unbuttoned in the finale of the Second. Richard Osborne, reviewing Brendel’s cycle with Rattle and the VPO (Philips, 5/99), rightly described this movement as ‘a dazzling game of hide-and-seek’; with Uchida and Rattle it’s more an amiable game of catch. But this is a minor complaint given the riches on offer.
What’s most valuable about these performances, I think, is their exploration of the music’s dramatic potential. Listen, for instance, to the way Rattle takes his time at the beginning of the development section in the opening Allegro of the First (at 6'38"). It’s as if he’s opening a door to an astonishing new world. And it is a new world, after all – a dream world, in fact, where all is raptly quiet. But this entrée is only possible because the Berliners are able to make beautiful even the wispiest sliver of pianissimo. He does something similar in the opening of the Fourth Concerto, taking a huge, slow breath before the surprise shift to B major.
The whole of the Fourth is beautifully done, in fact. With its rich fabric of intricate figuration – particularly in the first movement – one could say that texture and sonority are among the concerto’s wonders. Uchida’s fastidious articulateness makes every stitch count, yet her phrasing is generous, so the detail always remains in its rightful place as part of a larger unfolding. And she doesn’t merely reveal what’s beautiful; in the finale’s second theme, she illuminates how beautifully strange it is, too: the spareness of the two-voice texture after so much activity, the sensuous rightness of that ‘wrong’ B flat in the left hand, and the way the meandering tune ends with an abrupt query – all over a droning cello.
The performance of the Emperor is similarly special. The first movement’s ebullience comes across vividly on the CD but is even more evident on the Blu ray video, where one can see Rattle practically radiating euphoria. Uchida’s playing, on the other hand, is far more joyous (and also wittier) than her mater dolorosa countenance might lead one to believe. She’s mesmeric in the Adagio, certainly. Rattle sets the tone by shaping the strings’ hushed hymn so supplely that it no longer sounds like a hymn but something more spontaneous and intimate. And Uchida phrases with disarming purity. In an interview that’s part of the video presentation, she talks about the spiritual element in Beethoven’s music, and how the mixed-race violinist George Bridgetower (the original dedicatee of the Kreutzer Sonata) described the composer’s playing as ‘chaste’ in its expressiveness. If that’s what she was aiming for here, I’d say she hits the mark.
In the finale, by contrast, she digs in with earthy boisterousness. If only the timpani could be heard more clearly during the cadenza; otherwise the recorded sound is excellent. These are live recordings, so we hear Uchida hit a few wrong notes (but very few), as well as some extraneous noises and the occasional glitch in ensemble. Please don’t let this stop you.
In the interview segment, Uchida says, too, that she absolutely never listens to her own recordings, but when Berlin asked if they could release these performances she had no choice. Yes, of course there are small flaws, she says cringing, but she also hears a vitality that made her eager to share them. I, for one, am grateful she did.