Currently on a European tour with Mariss Jansons and the superb Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, Mitsuko Uchida demonstrated at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday night why she is regarded as one of the finest Beethoven interpreters alive today.
Angst-ridden yet full of symphonic grandeur, Beethovens Third Piano Concerto was the composers first significant bombshell against musical convention. It marks an important departure from the post-Mozartian virtuosity of his earlier piano concertos, and while its outer movements evince that typical Beethovenian air of indefatigability, the central Largo provides an opportunity for hazy reflection. Jansons lead an orchestra simply brimming with vitality and enthusiasm, with an especially buoyant wind section.Uchida was captivating: remarkably incisive, typically effusive and occasionally hauntingly delicate in her touch, particularly in the slow movement. Her first-movement cadenza was mesmerizing, and in general it was the opening movement that stood out most for me. The third was perhaps a touch too measured, but it did reveal just how well soloist and ensemble were able to interact with each other. The fugal episode for the strings, for instance, increased in verve and intensity finding release all of a sudden in the most delicate of pianissimos in the piano. The contrast was not at all mannered, but sheer delight to behold.
On the whole, there was such attention to detail in this performance (perhaps barring the flute in the slow movement, which sounded constantly as though it was about to go flat). The dry, crisp incisiveness of the concertos final orchestral chord was brilliant, and it was this sort of acute musicianship that carried on through to Strausss Ein Heldenleben, which followed in the second half.
Strausss semi-autobiographical tone poem is an unabashedly self-confident and swaggering sort of work, not without its moments of lush orchestral writing. The opening was broad and expansive, yielding to a much tighter, bittier texture in The Heros Adversaries, which Jansons held together well. This came to a head in the tone poems fourth episode (The Hero at Battle), which was wrought with intensity, while the works admittedly overwhelming density was punctuated quite beautifully (but not especially seductively) by the principal solo violin. Apart from the slightly unbalanced diminuendo on the final chord, this was stirring stuff, although there were moments in the slower sections when the music just felt somewhat drab and drawn out. It needed some sort of release and thankfully this came in the encore, which took the form of some waltz episodes from Der Rosenkavalier. Even Uchida, demonstrating that great sense of camaraderie this ensemble is known for, surreptitiously snuck out on stage and sat, knees up to her chest, listening to the Bavarian RSOs ebullient showpiece. A touching end to an on the whole inspiring evening.
Further details of Royal Festival Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk