INKPOT#65 CLASSICAL MUSIC REVIEWS: BEETHOVEN Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2. Uchida/Bavarian RSO/Sanderling (Philips)

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN
Piano Concerto No.1 in C major, op.15
Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major, op.19

Symphonieorchester des Bayersichen Rundfunks conducted by Kurt Sanderling

Philips Classics 454-468-2
[69’34”] full-price

by Johann D’Souza

It is a known fact that Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto was actually his first and that his First was his second. The reason being that he had made no less than four major changes to the former, delaying its trip to the publishers. As a result of this it was assigned as No.2. These concertos were very dear to Beethoven and about five years lapsed before they were actually published. While Beethoven did perform them in public, these majestic works could not be played by any other than himself. When he did send his second piano concerto to the printers, he confessed: “I do not pass it off as one of my best because I am keeping the better ones for myself until I myself make a journey, yet you need not be ashamed to print it”.

The first two piano concertos are so characteristically Mozartian that an amateur could easily believe them to be a couple of Mozart’s late piano concertos. The opening bars of Beethoven’s First Concerto sounds like Mozart’s last C major Concerto K.503 (No.25, 1786); however it is not long before Beethoven’s harmonic expansions bring to it its own distinct features. Beethoven was already striking it out as a prolific pianist – mind you, by the time of his death he had composed 32 Sonatas for the piano, 12 Sonatas for violin and piano, all topped off with the five piano concertos.

Mitsuko Uchida, having already recorded the entire Mozart Piano Concerto repertoire with Jeffery Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra has recently embarked on the Beethoven Concertos. I have another set of the later concertos played by Emil Gilels, the eminent and legendary Russian pianist well-known for his Beethoven – however I have to say that just like her Mozart concertos, Uchida is able to bring new insight into these works. Coincidently, the conductor in Emil Gilels’ recording (on Revelation) is also Kurt Sanderling. Gilels’ insights are rather different, opting more for a slower pace and a certain sense of passiveness.

In the Piano Concerto No.1, Uchida takes the first movement in 18’11”, a full five minutes slower in pace compared to Gilels who zooms in at around 12 minutes. While Gilels’ recording is ‘live’ and has all the associated tension, Uchida as always plays with a certain guided sense of judgement and is in no hurry, especially in the cadenza at 14’30”. Her phrasing is rounded with her chords extending, giving the music more depth of sound. I have to commend Philips for providing ample space and clarity for the piano to sound above the orchestra. Uchida’s runs are silky clean and graceful yet always full of colour; her attention to markings are clearly depicted, just as in her Mozart recordings.

Mitsuko Uchida These two concertos have distinct Largo and Adagio second movements, different from the Andantes of Mozart’s concertos. Uchida is truly a genius of the slow, “second” movement and her adherence to Beethoven’s markings of con gran espressione are clearly depicted with her use of the sustaining pedal and beautiful phrasing. Uchida (left) is a pianist to watch out as an interpreter of Beethoven and it will not be long before she joins the ranks as a great Beethoven performer. One really has to hear and watch her as she is noted for her contorting facial gestures and cat-like body movements. One has to imagine the mini duet with the clarinet at 7’10” of the second movement where she plays her trills. Her great control of tempo, especially marked at the end of the movement, is a marvel to listen to.

Her third movement is marked by well-kept balance, which I find slightly different from the Russian pianists’ way and indeed among the male pianists. They tend to have a rather overbearing right hand which keeps the melody in that hand dominant; whereas for Uchida she has this ability to draw on an equal balance between hands. Thus her runs provide for more colour and style. Her pedalling must also be commended – never have I heard the fading pedal used so effectively.

The notes in the sleeve point out that the cadenzas for these two concertos were written a decade after the works were published and by this time Beethoven had radically changed his style and made no disguise of this fact.

Beethoven The Piano Concerto No.2 in B-flat major, op.19 starts once again very similar to a Mozart concerto, with its long tutti introduction and the principal subject announced by the strings before the piano takes centrestage. It is said that this concerto was likely complete in its definitive form in 1795 and that Beethoven (right) played it twice in public before it was published.

Uchida is in her element in the opening movement as its lyrical nature clearly suits her Mozartian style of playing. In addition to her remarkable phrasing, Uchida is always full of colour, especially in the ordinary chords where she is able to exercise imagination to make them sound different from more ordinary accounts. The cadenza is taken less as a virtuoso trip, and I could not but notice the wonderful filigree towards the end of the cadenza. Here she displays her neat fingerwork through her unique and lyrical legato-style of phrasing. Accompanying all this, Sanderling is never too anxious and creates a pace that suits Uchida’s playing.

Her second movement is once again probing and inwardly directed, although I have to point this out that for this movement, my experience of Nikolai Demidenko’s performance with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra a couple of years ago still remains untouchable.

I have come to appreciate tremendously Mitsuko Uchida’s playing, having also bought her disc of Schubert (Sonatas Philips 454 453-2) and Mozart works recently (Philips ) and I really look forward to her interpretations of the introspective later sonatas of Beethoven, which I think would definitely suit her style of playing.

Johann D’Souza insists he is good with a pair of pliers.

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