Stravinsky: Apollon Musagette; Mozart: Piano Concertos No 23 in A & No 24 in C minor

Chamber Orchestra of Europe/Mitsuko Uchida

Royal Festival Hall, 1 December 2008 4 stars

Mitsuko Uchida

The combination of Mitsuko Uchida and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe is a winning one and the Festival Hall was a sell-out for their Monday evening concert. On the programme was an idiosyncratic combination of Mozart and Stravinsky, the latter being represented by his ballet score, for strings only, Apollon Musagette. Then, either side of the interval, we heard two late, great Mozart piano concertos – no 23 in A, K488 and no 24 in C minor, K491.

Apollon Musagette is not an obvious piece with which to open a concert. Basically a theme and variations, it is a dry and somewhat austere work that starts and ends quietly: in the theatre Balanchine’s soloists perform what amount to a series of gymnastic exercises against a vivid blue cycloramic background. Well and good, but purely as a listening experience, the piece is intellectually interesting yet emotionally cool. In the hands of the COE (admirably led by Alexander Janiczek) string textures were alternately hushed, then plangent, then spiky. Dance rhythms were always to the fore and the work was beautifully played. So, much to admire, but a show-stopper it is not.

That was left to the evening’s soloist, Mitsuko Uchida, who knows these two concertos backwards and who directed from the keyboard, left hand open and expressively coaxing the orchestral line she wanted, right hand nearly always clenched and keeping the beat. She treated K488 as an exercise in beautifully coordinated sound, elegant, subtle and hardly ever rising above a dynamic of mf. Her work at the keyboard was wonderfully controlled, her left hand punching out those constant harmonic progressions in the bass line while her right hand floated effortlessly over the runs and arpeggios, sometimes hitting the keys so quietly that you just caught the shape and outline of the melody whilst being able to marvel at all the orchestral inner parts. The COE woodwind were particularly fine here: their playing was sharply delineated, flute, oboe and bassoon in constant dialogue and absolutely in time and sympathy with the evening’s soloist. And yet…well, the one thing that was missing to my ear was a sense of fun and playfulness, the little touches of humour that abound in Mozart’s piano concertos. Had they been present, the performance would have been well nigh perfect.

Mitsuko UchidaAnd so to the much darker, more dramatic K491 of which the programme notes told us that no definitive full score actually exists. This gives scope for some experimentation therefore, and we duly got it in the third movement dialogue passages between piano and strings: the rest of the orchestra fell silent while Uchida played to an accompaniment of a string quartet formed by four of the COE’s principals. It made for a wonderful contrast with the plump, tutti sound of the COE at full stretch, horns, trumpets and tympani blending richly with a very special string sound that the orchestra manages to achieve. This is a more ‘serious’ concerto altogether and it seemed to me to lie nearer to Uchida’s temperament at the piano: once again, humour and playfulness were lacking, but she got terrific intensity into the exchanges between piano and orchestra, when the melodic line is passed effortlessly from soloists to players and back again. The passagework was not faultless: one or two tiny smudges and approximations in the right hand as the concerto progressed, but musically it was a stirring experience and all concerned fully deserved the huge ovation they got at the end of the evening.

It is quite fun at a COE concert simply to look at the players: on Monday night the double bass principals of the Vienna Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra stood side by side chatting as they awaited the orchestra’s leader for the evening. This joy of making music together in a chamber orchestra formation seems to motivate them all and to inform what they do. With Uchida in full flow during the finale of K488 I found myself thinking that it doesn’t get much better than this. Had the wit and humour been present as well, it would have been a five star concert. As things were, it reached most but not quite all of the heights that Apollo presages.

By Mike Reynolds

Photograph credits: Hyou Vielz and Richard Avedon