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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Concert Review: Her Dark Materials

With the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Mitsuko Uchida returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The ten magic fingers of Mitsuko Uchida. Photo by Jean Radel.
The art of conducting a piano concerto from the keyboard, and also playing the fiendishly difficult piano parts written into such a work, sometimes produces conflicting results. Soloists used to the traditional position in front of a conductor may find themselves relying on the bow of their concertmaster. Others may have trouble splitting the tasks of orchestral leadership and visiting virtuoso. None of those problems befell Mitsuko Uchida, who brought her current collaborators in the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to Carnegie Hall for a concert of Mozart and Berg on Friday night.

Ms. Uchida proved the exception to the rule with her performance of the Piano Concerto in F Major, one of Mozart's most genial concert showpieces. The ensemble responded to her gestures with a crisp, firm tone, its small string sections perfectly balanced with the all-imprtant oboe and flute. When she entered, it was with a direct and precise attack, playing the open-topped Steinway with a touch that, loud or soft, was always precise in its measurement of impact.

However, this was far more than musical mathematics. The performance was imbued with the passion and geniality of spirit that flows through the pages of this work. This is Mozart at his most ebullient, tender and lyrical, as the melodic lessons of the opera house were applied to the then-new idea of piano versus orchestra. The winds led off the slow movement, breathing sighs of warmth and passion as the piano entered. A gentle, flowing figure in the strings led to a lyric outpouring of notes. The finale, launched without pause by Ms. Uchida, took a capering, staccato theme and ran it through knotty variations, culminating in a giant fugue that had pianist and orchestra gleefully racing through the hallowed halls of polyphony.

The pianist left the stage and the string players desks were arranged into a standing configuration for the next piece: Alban Berg's Lyric Suite. Although the idea of performing anything atonal (even sandwiched between Mozart concertos) is anathema to many concert attendees, the fact is that this music has been around for (almost) a century, is an essential part of the repertory, and is beautiful to the ear. Berg's work is twelve-tone music at its most beguiling, three movements that take the listener through the depths of the composer's imagination and show the possibilities of the new musical territories mapped by his teacher Arnold Schoenberg. The performance was led by concertmaster Matthew Truscott, conducting from the bow.

The first movement, a twisting Andante, impressed with its breadth of vision and call-and-response between the string sections. Berg lays out his tonal materials here, a rebuilt row of notes that forms the interval basis for everything that follows. The music is the logical development forward from the highly organized chamber works of Brahms and the last symphonies of Mahler. The fast second, with its spectral bowing for the violins and plucked accompaniment, seemed to confuse the audience. The Adagio was Berg at his most song-like, a sad lament led by the doubled cellos and basses (the music is written in four parts and based on a string quartet) answered by the higher strings. It ended in a surprisingly fast fade-out.

The orchestra was augmented by two slide trumpets, a small pair of kettledrums and of course, Ms. Uchida for the last piece: Mozart’s D Minor Concerto. This is the stormiest and darkest of the late Mozart, one that is all bluster in the bold pages of its opening movement. All these dramatics were precisely cued by Ms. Uchida, whose leadership and control of these forces speaks not only to her won high musical ability but to the  esteem in which she was held by the players onstage.

The proto-Beethoven tantrums give way to a slow central movement that has been treated as holy writ by music lovers ever since it was chosen as the exit music in the film Amadeus. Ms. Uchida played this famous passage very quietly, letting the music make its own statement before her lament was joined by the oboe and wooden flute. The music swelled into a brusque middle section before that same sad song returned, fading into silence after the last orchestral chord.

The finale starts with a fiendishly tricky trip-hammer phrase that was echoed by the rest of the players. The tutti response was underpinned by the trumpets and the steady tap of the timpani. The piano led the way out of darkness and lament, before delivering one last, long breathless cadenza delivered to thrilling effect. The encore was Mozart again, an enchanting slow movement from one of the piano sonatas. It was delivered with a hymn-like tone by Ms. Uchida. The serenity of this music proved temporary, threatened repeatedly by the electronic intrusions of today's modern world.

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