REVIEW: Mitsuko Uchida and Mahler Chamber Orchestra's Polished Drama in Mozart and Berg
Above: Mitsuko Uchida conducting the Mahler Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Jennifer Taylor
MARCH 30, 2019
BY BRIAN TAYLOR
Mitsuko Uchida, renowned for refined interpretations of Mozart, appeared at Carnegie Hall on Friday evening with the nomadic Mahler Chamber Orchestra to continue their collaborative exploration of the composer's piano concertos. Conducting from the piano, which was perpendicular to the proscenium, lid removed, Ms. Uchida led shapely renditions of two of Mozart's works for piano and orchestra, No. 19 in F Major, and the more famous No. 20 in D Minor.
Though the pair are nicely contrasted, the first in a Marriage of Figaro mood, the second in the composer's rarer, brooding minor-keyed mode, they're still both Mozart concertos. So, thankfully, the orchestra presented some Second Viennese School expressionism, in the form of Alban Berg's 1928 arrangement for string orchestra of three movements from his watershed Lyric Suite for string quartet, as a palette cleanser.
Ms. Uchida, conducts the concertos with gentle, broad gestures, establishing a lacquered, defined mood and feel for each movement. When she finally entered with the piano's statement of the F Major concerto’s opening theme, I feared that her subdued timbre, liberal use of the soft-pedal, and polished, pearly scales and arpeggios would make for a monochromatic evening with few thrills. But, one cannot argue with the perfection in her playing, faultless technique in service to a dramatic end, and a keen point of view about the pieces' form and architecture. At times, her interpretations feel studied, and the placement of the piano made its sound blur, swallowed up into the hall's acoustics, so that those glistening streams of notes sound like we’re in a cathedral. But each piece found its pay dirt in due time.
The orchestra is wonderful; they listen sensitively, and have a resonant warmth to their sound. After the pep of the F Major's first movement, the second movement is a wistful aria for the piano, and Ms. Uchida was in good "voice," her legato infused with singing line. The sprightly third movement finds Mozart exploring the woodwind choir's newfound modernism, and the piano and strings engaged in fun chatter.
The D minor concerto, premiered in 1785, is infinitely more riveting, with real Sturm und Drang. The first movement was the evening's highpoint, the orchestra bringing a stormy intensity to the Don Giovanni-like dark side of Mozart. Ms. Uchida showed us a different side here too, using lots of pedal in sweeping scales, and leaning into the emotional implications of Mozart's grander gestures. She chose Beethoven's remarkable cadenza for the first movement, indulging in the romantic lyricism Beethoven found as an answer to Mozart's query. As the music travels to distant, exotic keys, Ms. Uchida exploited her instrument's gauzier colors.
The second movement, a Romanze in slow 4, can seem impish in lesser hands. But, Ms. Uchida elevates the music's simplicity with a jewel-like clarity and childlike innocence. To reveal the heart and truth contained in this music is a magical skill, requiring the wisdom an artist like Ms. Uchida has accumulated over years of performing. The concluding rondo also reads as relatively straightforward, but orchestra and soloist make high stakes drama out of it. Again Beethoven's cadenza caps it off with a flourish, building to a torrent of trills. The fiery return of the main theme was like a cathartic release of smoldering fume.
The orchestra's account of Berg's Three Pieces was also smoldering, but told a very different story. The Lyric Suite from which these pieces originate employs the twelve-tone techniques of the composer's teacher Arnold Schoenberg, but bears Berg's particular brand of late-Romantic angst. The ruminative music is permeated with the composer's complicated experiences in love (it's dedicated to a woman with which he was having an illicit affair) and also oozes the post-industrial, war-besotted, Zeitgeist that was Europe during the composer's lifetime. The orchestra, led only by its concertmaster, the illustrious violinist Matthew Truscott, brought these dense thickets of notes to life with a rhythmic vitality (and disarming accuracy given the intricateness of Berg's notation and the lack of conductor) and a wider color palette than such a homogeneous combination of instruments would be expected to achieve.
Mitsuko Uchida plays two all-Schubert programs