Saturday, April 6, 2013


Severance Hall
April 4

No need for a conductor with Uchida at the keyboard.

Superstar pianist Mitsuko Uchida returned to Severance for an all-Mozart program this weekend, though it would not be quite correct to say that she played with the orchestra. Rather, the orchestra played with her. Leading the ensemble from the piano bench, Uchida made a convincing case for the synthesis that can be achieved between a soloist and a chamber orchestra, sans conductor.

After a stripped-down version of the orchestra (strings and woodwinds only) had taken their seats on Thursday night, Uchida strode onto the stage in a jade-green outfit covered by what appeared to be a clear plastic raincoat. A touch of Rei Kawakubo, perhaps? There was no time to wonder, as she promptly struck a light tone and nimble pace for Piano concerto No. 17 (K453), conducting briefly from a standing position before dropping into her seat to play.

The caliber of Uchida’s performances is never in question. She has brilliant command of a wide repertoire and an insightful, sensitive playing style that has garnered many awards, including a Grammy for a recording of two Mozart piano concertos (Nos. 23 & 24) with the Cleveland Orchestra. She is an intensely focused performer; there’s not a single note in her playing that seems less than deliberately, carefully crafted.

What’s striking about Uchida is, first, the European quality of her sound. In some ways, this isn’t surprising. She trained in Vienna, where she gave her first recital at the age of 14. Still, it’s breathtaking to hear such a perfect realization of Western music by an Eastern performer. The Japanese in particular are regarded as technically proficient but often emotionless players. If anything, Uchida can be overly expressive in her interpretation.

This was evident in her treatment of the second and third movements of the No. 17 concerto, which were filled with lingering phrases and dramatic pauses. It’s the keyboard equivalent of a breathy vocal style, dramatic and delicately balanced between tension and release. Pulling that off demands a deep understanding of the material, along with a vision of how to bring it to life.

A conductor would be an impediment to that vision, at least in Uchida’s world. Controlling the tempo and dynamics of the orchestra to a fine degree, she can come in after the slightest pause, increasing the dramatic effect, or pick up the piano line without missing a beat, helping build momentum and highlighting the interplay with the orchestra. It’s a fully integrated approach that enables Uchida to shape the entire piece and change it as she goes along, drawing out her solos, trading phrases playfully with the woodwinds, saving a burst of joy for the last few bars.

In Piano concerto No. 25 (K503) this translated into a glossy surface with deep undercurrents, lightened in passages like the piano solo in the first movement, where Uchida gave the thematic variations a mischievous sparkle. The atmosphere of understated elegance in the second movement extended even to her body language, with Uchida swaying in her seat as she conducted. She opened up the final movement for virtuoso runs on the keyboard and dazzling exchanges of phrases through the orchestra, finishing with a tight, dramatic flourish.

For all that, it was the orchestra’s string section that stole the show with a exquisite interlude between the concertos, the Divertimento in B flat major (K137). Deeply felt and beautifully played with a luxurious, silken sound, it captured the divine quality of Mozart’s music, its unique ability to make you laugh and cry all at once. Except for the cellos, the players stood rather than sat – an 18th-century convention, as the program book noted, that seemed to perk up the acoustics a bit, giving a 30-piece ensemble the clarity of a chamber quartet.

Or maybe that was just wishful listening on the part of this critic. When the Cleveland Orchestra plays Mozart, it’s hard not to get carried away.

For more on Mitsuko Uchida:

For more on Japanese fashion designer Rei Kawakubo:

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