A boundless sense of enthusiasm and self-effacement is perhaps what struck me most about Mitsuko Uchida and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestras performance at the Royal Festival Hall on Friday evening. So, with two inherently optimistic works programmed for Sunday nights chamber concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the soloists of the Bavarian RSO and Uchida were hardly going to disappoint.
Beethovens Piano Quintet in E flat, Op. 16, for piano, oboe, clarinet, horn and bassoon, is certainly one of the most optimistic works in the composers oeuvre, and it was upbeat playing all the way with this ensemble of remarkably fine musicians. The sudden key changes in the opening Allegro were articulated with startling precision and vigour, genuinely surprising each time they came around. The charming Andante cantabile was for the most part utterly beguiling (Uchidas solo passages in particular seemed suspended in time), while the hunting-theme finale was suitably exuberant. It was clear from the start how much this ensemble relished playing together, with each musician able to bring something individual to the performance. Uchidas exchange of melodic lines with clarinettist Stefan Schilling was often sublime in its simplicity, while Ramn Ortega Queros oboe playing frequently boasted a sustained resonance and a bewitching delicacy of tone, as did Eric Terwilligers blissfully relaxed horn playing.
This was a rather Classical sounding Beethoven, to be sure, and I wondered if this performance could have done with more of that reckless, firebrand quality that modern audiences have come to expect of a composer so often depicted as that most rugged and convention-defying of musical iconoclasts. But then we may not have experienced such a huge range of dynamic gradation, with Uchida in particular providing and prompting some exquisite piano playing, which in turn placed any louder sections in dramatic relief. Either way, if it wasnt altogether accentuated in the quintet, this taste for Romantic zeal certainly seemed to come more to the fore in Schuberts expansive and delectable Octet in F, D.803.
It is quite extraordinary to think that Schubert could compose such a buoyant and exuberant work when he was simultaneously undergoing secret treatment for the syphilis that would eventually bring about his premature death. The string section seemed perhaps more inclined to revel in this buoyancy (as was immediately apparent in the Allegro of the Octets opening movement), while the wind section provided a contrasting air of subtlety. This contrast became a bit pointed in the following Adagio, in which the upper strings in particular sounded somewhat more heavily etched within the musics texture. And despite their usual tendency to push things forward, it was actually the second violin and viola that (only occasionally) dragged in their accompanying figures in the third movement.
However, this momentary letup in intensity was all but forgotten in the following Theme and Variations, which undoubtedly contained some of the most impressive ensemble playing. The strings seemed to take a leaf out of Uchidas book by demonstrating that they too could play with a huge range of dynamic contrast when called for. As for solo contributions, Sebastian Klingers cello in particular sang out in its longer, lyrical lines. Again, the winds retained a greater sense of delicacy in the minuet, thereby capturing the movements sense of benevolent tenderness more tellingly than the strings, I thought, before a hugely spirited finale brought this ebullient work to a close.
The playing on Sunday night was, in short, immaculate, even in those rare moments when the balance didnt seem totally perfect. But again, much like Friday nights concert, it was this overriding sense of freedom and effortless musicianship that struck me most about this uplifting performance.
Further details of Queen Elizabeth Hall concerts can be found at southbankcentre.co.uk