CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 16 NOVEMBER 2009
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 15 in B flat Major, K. 450; Piano Concerto No. 26 in D major, K. 537 ("Coronation"). Arnold Schoenberg: Chamber Symphony No. 1 in E major op. 9. (Mitsuko Uchida, p. & cond.; Andrew Grams, cond.)
It was a new way, and that was ample reason to applaud the man who followed it. So said Gustav Mahler, speaking to one of his students after the 1907 premiere of Arnold Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony. The performance had not been a success. Willi Reich's biography of Schoenberg quotes the correspondent for Berlin's Vossische Zeitung, who reported having gone to hear the Chamber Symphony as an alternative to joining in the Vienna carnival season. Thus he hoped to stay in touch with "the spirit of Eternal Foolery."
This weekend's Cleveland Orchestra programs feature Assistant Conductor Andrew Grams leading 15 members of the ensemble in a performance of the First Chamber Symphony that might win over even concertgoers who flinch on seeing Schoenberg's name on the program. Grams' reading looks backward toward the composition's Romantic roots. The result is propulsive, dramatic, and, in the work's Adagio section, even downright voluptuous. And though it underplays the occasional detail—a pizzicato violin interjection here, some astringent fortissimo woodwinds there—one hesitates to bemoan the loss.
The Schoenberg Chamber Symphony is flanked by the next two concertos in Mitsuko Uchida's Mozart cycle: K. 450 and the so-called "Coronation" concerto, K. 537. Fans of this series will already be familiar with the pianist's style: the exceptional digital facility, the hyper-conscious shaping of notes and phrases, the meticulous engineering of attack and dynamics. One has the sense, yes, of tremendous focus and concentration, but something more as well—of intentionality. It's as if each note is being willed into independent existence, its character carefully calibrated for the niche it's to occupy.
It's a dangerous game—a stylistic high-wire act worthy of a musical Wallenda. And the remarkable thing is that Uchida nearly always pulls it off—even when, as here, she's not only handling the solo part, but also conducting from the keyboard. She could be a risky pianist for a young musician to emulate. Nudge her playing a shade this way or that, and the result might be mannered, or prettified, or simply grotesque. Yet Uchida's performances paradoxically retain a naturalness, a freshness alongside the artifice. Thursday evening was no exception. Yes, one could quibble here and there—with the ensemble's lack of rhythmic crispness very early on in K. 450, for example—but, as with Grams' Schoenberg, such complaints seem almost inconsequential.
I've seen this pianist seriously stumble only once, and that was in a 2004 Severance Hall performance of the Ravel Piano Concerto—music with a nonchalant whimsicality that seemed utterly at odds with Uchida's approach. Mozart? To be sure, Uchida can handle Mozart—not to mention Beethoven, Schoenberg, Schubert. It was Ravel's "spirit of Eternal Foolery" that had the rare ability to trip her up.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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