Uchida Plays and Conducts = MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 13 in C Major, K. 415; Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466

by | Aug 10, 2006 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Uchida Plays and Conducts = MOZART: Piano Concerto No. 13 in C Major, K. 415; Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor, K. 466 (2001)

Camerata Salzburg/ Mitsuko Uchida, piano and conductor
Studio: DGG DVD B0006498-09 (Distrib. Universal)
Video: 4:3 Color
Audio: PCM Stereo
Bonus: Interview: “I’ll Play Bach When I’m Seventy”
Duration: 92 minutes
Rating: ****

Recorded at the Mozarteum, Salzburg, 2-4 March 2001, these suavely intimate performances of two Mozart concertos feature Mitsuko Ushida in the role of pianist-conductor, her back to the audience in the midst of her colleagues, primus inter pares. We have seen Andre Previn in the same circumstances. As directed by Horant H. Hohlfeld, the visual cutting is extremely fast, both in terms of the scoring and the movement within the bar line, so that a change of dynamic involves a shift in camera angle. Ushida is not a pretty conductor to watch, no baton and all grimaces, but she knows what she wants. She makes the C Major Concerto’s opening Allegro a furious alternation of large and small forces, and she does not stint on her dynamics for the composer’s cadenza. Horns and tympani have unlimited sway, making the concerto most festive. Uchida offers almost no perceptible beat, but she molds the phrases to the Andante with a vague sort of tactus; her playing at the keyboard, however, is impeccably bright and the camera loves to capture her from the right side of the violins. Attentive to Mozart’s details in color and phrasing, Uchida projects a bright, rounded tone and sonic patina. As her fingers ply the lyrical arioso and ornamental passages, we catch a glimpse of the concertmaster’s bowing elbow in the frame.  When the camera pulls back above the audience, we have a concert setting much as the composer himself would have presented to his contemporaries.

Like Karajan, Uchida is sparing of eye contact, except when she widens them and complements the effect by mouthing the melodic contours to her ensemble. A nod at the cadence of the Andante’s cadenza, and we close lovingly. The last movement Rondeau has Uchida leaning hard into the orchestral accents, especially at accelerandi. When the piano comes in after the first tutti, Mozart takes us into harmonically exotic regions, in the manner of a chromatic meditation. Then the Rondeau theme, ingenuously naïve. Quick cut to the oboes, then to Uchida’s hands, then past her in perspective to the audience. A tiny ritard prior to the third ritornello has the violinists smiling. Mozart takes the theme apart and in stretto, playfully delicious.  A false cadence for another recitativo-arioso episode with bassoon accompaniment; then, a modulatory passage back to our old friend, the ritornello. Even the audience is unsure the concerto is over; but their emboldened applause confirms that it is.

The D Minor Concerto permit’s the passionate tiger in Uchida to leap out, just as soon as the flute solo ends his phrase. Trumpets, strings, and tympani crescendo, then flute and winds proceed to the next sforzato. Thumbs and index fingers of each hands locked, Uchida diminishes the sound for her entry. The camera cuts away from any direct view of Uchida – just the ensemble and then to her detached hands. Then the camera pans back for the melody line, then to the oboe and flute statement, bassoon in the bass. Even the piano’s interior hammer mechanism seems integrated into the pulse of the performance. Because Uchida is so active at the keyboard, we have to look away to savor the music’s intensities without the visual histrionics. The tutti becomes quite overpowering; then, another hard cadence, and we are once again in the intimate embrace of piano, oboe, and bassoon. Uchida plays the Beethoven cadenza with pregnant pauses for the graded periods, which even play in canon briefly. A ppp entry as the tension begins to mount, the martial theme against the arpeggios. Eyes closed, totally rapt, Uchida staggers the approach to the huge trill at which the orchestra explodes in quick response to the coda.

Uchida takes the Romance at a healthy andante tempo, a walking pace not overly sentimental; but she cuts loose for the stormy middle section, with horns and especially the bassoons, afire. The piano solo interlude for the Romanza returns, and a gloriously intimate moment it is. The camera pulls back as we enter the final bars, oboes and bassoons, with flute complement, filling out the piano’s bittersweet song. Nice side shot of Uchida against the first violins. Quick cut to the furious opening piano run for the Allegro assai, Uchida’s index finger over her mouth to elicit subito in the midst of the maelstrom. The D Minor interplay extends through strings and winds, the strings sighing; and then the piano leads to the flute’s D Major entry.  Another brief cadenza before the ritornello, then the orchestra led by Uchida, her eyes closed, mouth open, hands indicating passion but no discernible tempo. Rapid camera shifts as the interplay of winds and piano moves to the secondary, martial tune, the bassoon’s leading the procession under keyboard staccati. The camera wants Uchida’s contorted face for the last of Beethoven’s cadenzas for this powerful sturm und drang concerto, then the bassoon and winds lead into the final peroration, a happy combination of military and soaring elements, elegantly realized by a harmonious body of musicians. No doubt about the last note here; and the audience erupts accordingly. For a second time, the Camerata players refuse to allow Uchida to share the kudos.

The bonus track tells us that Uchida, while born in Japan, moved to Vienna as a child, and German is her inherited language. English, too, so Uchida feels she has imbibed three distinct cultures, each with its own contribution. Cut to Haydn Sonata in C, with Uchida calling him “a master of form. . .incredibly full of ideas.”  Beethoven, unlike Haydn, is not confined to the 18th century; he is 19th century.  Mozart, Uchida claims, belongs to everyone. . .he inhabits “an inexplicable world.” After a long exposition on Haydn, we cut to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9, K. 271 and Uchida’s discussion of Mozart’s sonatas and concertos. Uchida claims that Mozart’s piano concertos are more developed than Beethoven’s, until the latter’s G Major Concerto. “I like to make the gestures of the piano concerto, so big and public, much smaller and intimate, as if I were sitting alone or simply dreaming.”  Segue to a discussion about Schoenberg, whom Uchida discovered early on. “I was clueless young; so I had to gain experience.” Uchida played the Op. 11 and Op. 19. Regarding new music, Uchida admonishes that we be open-minded: “The problem is also that all that is new is more difficult.”  For Chopin, Uchida has respect, not only for his poetry but for his precision. “Each note is shown off to advantage.” Chopin knew his Bach; Uchida, too. “And if I live until seventy, I will play the 48 Preludes and Fugues in public.”

— Gary Lemco

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