02 September 2014

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – PIANO CONCERTOS NOS. 18 & 19 (Dame Mitsuko Uchida, piano; The Cleveland Orchestra; DECCA 478 6763)

CD REVIEW: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - PIANO CONCERTI NOS. 18 & 19 (DECCA 478 6763)

WOLFGANG AMADEUS MOZART (1756 – 1791): Piano Concertos Nos. 18 in B-flat major (K. 456) and 19 in F major (K. 459)Dame Mitsuko Uchida, piano and conductor; The Cleveland Orchestra [Recorded in performance in Severance Hall, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 1 – 5 April 2014; DECCA 478 6763; 1CD, 60:48; Available from Amazon, iTunes, jpc, Presto Classical, and major music retailers]

Recorded during live performances in the magnificent acoustics of Cleveland’s Severance Hall, this new installment in Dame Mitsuko Uchida’s journey through the complete Piano Concerti of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart preserves sparkling accounts of two of the composer’s loveliest contributions to the genre. With critically-acclaimed and still-competitive Philips recordings of the complete cycle of Mozart’s Piano Concerti with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra remaining in circulation, Ms. Uchida is in this traversal of the Piano Concerti for DECCA that most dangerous of artistic entities—a widely-lauded mistress of her craft with nothing to prove. The peril arises from the natural expectation for interpretive advancement or at least discernibly insightful variation. In so many instances, artists’ later thoughts on particular repertory add little to the appreciation of their interpretations: to adapt a conceit from a 1960s pop hit, comparisons of too many musicians’ recorded ‘repeat performances’ with their earlier efforts disclose that, in terms of meaningful artistic development, the second verse is often the same as the first. There is an added novelty in Ms. Uchida’s DECCA recordings of the Mozart Concerti in the pianist’s direction of the orchestra from the keyboard, but the truly gratifying aspect of these performances of the 18th and 19th Concerti—one that is obvious from the first bar of the recording—is the freshness of Ms. Uchida’s interpretations. As in her celebrated performances of Schubert’s piano music, she seeks the impetus for her recreations of the unique architecture of Mozart’s Concerti in the music itself. What the performances on this disc lack is any sense of self-conscious efforts to distort the music in order to fabricate an appreciable reimagining of her approach to the Concerti. Comparing running times on artists’s ‘old’ and ‘new’ recordings of a piece is a favorite pastime of many listeners, but Ms. Uchida’s playing makes this irrelevant. The noticeable deviations from the standards established by her earlier recordings are evidence of further refinement of the already-seasoned acuity apparent on the Philips discs. DECCA’s production values provide a recording in which every detail of Ms. Uchida’s interpretations can be enjoyed in clear, naturally-balanced sound that never betrays the ‘live’ circumstances of the recording. These performances are not ‘remakes’: they are the culminations of new exchanges between one of the greatest composers and one of the most distinguished exponents of his music.

The controlled fluidity of Ms. Uchida’s manner as both pianist and conductor coalesces impeccably with the playing of The Cleveland Orchestra. Since the heady days of seasons led by Music Directors Artur Rodziński and George Szell, The Cleveland Orchestra’s relationship with the music of Mozart has been an exceptionally fruitful one, and current Music Director Franz Welser-Möst has perpetuated the Orchestra’s legacy of stylish, rhythmically-buoyant performances of Mozart repertory. In these performances, the Orchestra personnel respond to Ms. Uchida’s direction with suppleness of phrasing that dovetails flawlessly with both her comprehensive conceptions of the scores and the distinctive subtleties of her pianism. Led by concertmaster William Preucil, the strings offer slender but full-bodied tone that nods to 21st-Century notions of period-appropriate playing without sacrificing the weight of sound that has served the Orchestra so well in Romantic works. Principal flautist Joshua Smith, whose Mozartean credentials were confirmed in a wonderfully-phrased DECCA recording of the timeworn K. 299/297c Concerto for Flute, Harp, and Orchestra, performs the flute parts in both Concerti with the commands of breath and rounded tone of the best bel canto singers, his awesomely reliable intonation put to radiant use in the solo flute line in the Andante movement of the B-flat Major Concerto. The eloquence of his playing is equaled by the oboes, bassoons, and horns, and the Clevelanders again prove themselves to be among the world’s finest orchestras.

The year 1784 was a whirlwind of creative activity for the young Mozart. Not yet thirty, the composer had already reached an astonishing level of achievement in his music for piano, and just in 1784 he composed six of his concerti for the instrument. The 18th and 19th Concerti are an apt pairing stylistically as well as chronologically, the two scores sharing instrumentation and basic structure, and the consistency of Ms. Uchida’s playing emphasizes the links between the concerti. In the Allegro vivace first movement of Concerto No. 18, Ms. Uchida sets a tempo that honors the briskness that Mozart is likely to have intended but also allows a degree of expansiveness that suits the breadth of the music. The gossamer brilliance of her execution of passagework remains impressive and often dazzling, but her focus is now more on emotional rather than technical virtuosity. Still, the rhythmic precision of her playing of trills and other ornaments is particularly laudable. She and the Orchestra markedly contrast the modulations into minor keys with the major-key passages without resorting to overdone sentimentality. There are fleeting insinuations of disquiet and cafard even in these relatively carefree works, but these performances acknowledge them without amplifying their significance. In the opening Allegro movement of Concerto No. 19, too, Ms. Uchida adopts a sensible tempo and an abiding lightness of touch that does not impede exploration of darker moods. The central Andante movement of Concerto No. 18 spurs Ms. Uchida to rapturously contemplative playing that she never allows to derail the music’s innate momentum. Her shaping of the second movement of Concerto No. 19, marked Allegretto, heightens the impact of the modified sonata form employed by Mozart, her understated differentiation of the major-key primary theme and minor-key secondary theme spotlighting the composer’s inventive development and interplay of the two subjects. Concerto No. 18 ends as it began, with an Allegro vivace, and Ms. Uchida replicates the nimbleness with which she played the first movement in her performance of the third. The Allegro assai third movement of Concerto No. 19 is one of Mozart’s sunniest inspirations, and Ms. Uchida’s playing accentuates the genius of Mozart’s fusion of joviality with sophistication. She uses Mozart’s cadenzas in both concerti, and this increases the continuity of the performances. The preeminence of Ms. Uchida’s affinity for Mozart’s music was not in doubt prior to the release of this disc, but these performances reaffirm that she is among the most prescient Mozarteans of her generation.

Recordings of Mozart’s Piano Concerti are anything but sparse, but good ones are no more plentiful than important novels or great paintings. Even rarer are performances in which pianist and orchestra consort as naturally and lucidly as Dame Mitsuko Uchida and The Cleveland Orchestra. Each of Mozart’s Piano Concerti presents singular trials and bounties: in these performances, every challenge is met and every prize claimed. Neither the pianist’s nor the Orchestra’s reputation depends upon this series of performances and recordings, but these presentations of Mozart’s 18th and 19th Piano Concerti showcase music-making that validates the conviction that great music and great musicians are as relevant, as mesmerizing, and as absolutely necessary in 2014 as they were in 1784.