In duo roles, Uchida provides a memorable Mozart evening with CSO

Fri Mar 19, 2010 at 1:00 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

If ever there was a composer whose music provides cooling balm for the miseries de la humaine, it’s Mozart.  And when you have one of the world’s finest Mozart pianists performing two works with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra it’s hard to go very far wrong.

The forces on stage may have been chamber-sized, but the music-making was grand and remarkable with Mitsuko Uchida performing two piano concertos with the CSO Thursday night at Orchestra Hall.

Uchida’s bona fides in Mozart are well known, but for one who has never before experienced her conducting from the keyboard, the evening also provided some bracing visuals. Uchida performs with the keyboard facing the stage, a la Barenboim, yet the Japanese musician’s keyboard-conducting style is much more demonstrative than the CSO’s former music director. Uchida stands and leads the players during orchestral introductions, directing with broad, elaborate arm gestures, which coaxed vigorous and responsive playing from the CSO members.

Uchida’s Mozart—as heard in the Piano Concerto No. 17—is truly the art that conceals art. Unfailingly graceful, poetic and elegant, one had the sense of simply experiencing the music without any intermediaries.

The Andante’s oasis of calm was assayed with supreme sensitivity by Uchida, the soloist bringing shaded expression to the cadenzas, and eliciting comparably refined woodwind support. The Allegretto is one of Mozart’s most effortlessly charming closers even by his bounteous standard, with an infectious main theme that Mozart famously taught his pet starling to sing. Uchida’s sparkling passagework and pacing were virtually faultless—she deftly conveyed the wit and ingenuity of the music, with the themes tossed back and forth between soloist and orchestra, and rounded off with a rambunctious opera buffa coda.

If Uchida and the CSO were inspired in No. 17, the affecting and eloquent performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 27, K.595, provided one of the highlights of this current music season.

It’s a bit of a cliche to impart a valedictory sense to a composer’s final works. Still, there’s no doubt that in his late masterpieces, Mozart was even further refining his art, shearing off excess and paring his music down to essentials, as with the Clarinet Concerto, the unadorned melodies of The Magic Flute, and his final piano concerto, K.595.

In the pensive opening movement, Uchida, as conductor, consistently illuminated the darker undertones, with the discordant string phrases seeming to point the way forward to the jarring modulations of Schubert’s late sonatas and quartets. In her keyboard playing, Uchida gave the solo line expressive weight without ever over-romanticizing the music. Her rendering of the Larghetto conveyed the melancholy nostalgia of the main theme with understated simplicity, and the finale with its children’s-song-like main theme rounded off the performance delightfully with wonderfully tight and attentive teamwork by the CSO players in support.

The self-effacing Uchida apparently decided that with players of the CSO’s caliber, a conductor was superfluous in the little Divertimento in F major, K. 138. The CSO strings performed Orpheus-style with no conductor.

Written at age 15, this is one of Mozart’s earliest gems, a brief three-movement work that shows the influence of his Italian travels, yet with the style inimitably that of the young Mozart. The string players brought out the charm of the lovely Andante with notably detailed dynamic marking, and the closing Rondo—a kind of Austrian hoe-down—was irresistible, the humor and vitality put across with spirited panache.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. 312-294-3000; www.cso.org.

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