Uchida, CSO team up for first-class Mozart

Fri Mar 29, 2013 at 12:18 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Mitsuko Uchida performed two Mozart piano concertos Thursday night with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

There are few Chicago Symphony Orchestra events more artistically consistent than pianist Mitsuko Uchida’a annual Mozart programs. Offering two piano concertos with a central non-soloist filler, these chamber orchestra concerts have grown into one of the CSO’s most reliable box office draws, as shown by the packed house Thursday night at Symphony Center.

One might quibble that Uchida could mix up the programs a bit more and offer some Mozart concertos that she has yet to perform in Chicago, rather than repeating the most popular works (both concertos heard this week were played by Uchida in 2010). Still, with Mozart playing on this level it’s hard to cavil.

It’s always historically dubious to try to retrospectively impute some insight to a composition based on subsequent events in the composer’s life. Tchaikovsky’s tragic Pathetique symphony premiered just days before his sudden death, yet he also wrote the effervescent Nutcracker ballet around the same time.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 27 was his last work in the genre, written in the final year of his life. The relaxed charm of the closing Allegro certainly doesn’t indicate any foreboding with its infectious melody sounding like a cheerful children’s song.

Yet there is a pensive quality to the main theme of the opening movement, and in the Larghetto’s solo theme—spare, introspective with a tinge of regret—it’s hard not to feel a degree of valedictory expression.

Uchida is almost without peer in this repertoire, and her light virtuosity, poise and natural eloquence were at their finest in K.595. Even with a distractingly tubercular audience, Uchida’s graceful touch conveyed the subdued expression of the opening Allegro with elegant tone and nimble articulation.

I confess I find Uchida’s grace notes marginally busy and intrusive, especially in the slow movement where the austerity of the solo line seems such an innate part of the music. Worse, her rescoring of an accompanying passage for solo violin rather than the string section as written was interventionist and just sounded bizarre.

Still, the pianist’s luminous, hushed solo playing in the Larghetto made the expression that much more compelling for being so understated. The bustling finale was put across by all in spirited fashion, and Uchida, conducting from the keyboard with expressive hand gestures, drew responsive playing from the CSO ensemble.

The Piano Concerto No. 17 is one of the most ineffably charming of all Mozart concertos, rich in thematic material even by this composer’s bounteous standard. Apart from a couple brief digital slips. Uchida’s solo work was as graceful, fluent and stylish as ever. The closing Allegretto—variations on a tune Mozart famously taught a pet starling to sing— was especially delightful, with alert, closely knit interplay between Uchida and the orchestra. William Buchman’s bassoon work was stellar throughout, though with such prominent wind solos, in the slow movement particularly, it would have been nice if the CSO’s woodwind principals were on hand for these performances.

The centerpiece was Eine kleine Nachtmusik, still likely Mozart’s most popular and familiar work (though, as with many favorites, infrequently heard at subscription concerts with the last CSO outing 13 years ago).

With violins and violas standing, concertmaster Robert Chen led the 30-member ensemble in a fresh and vital performance that allowed the considerable charm of Mozart’s celebrated string serenade to shine. The Romance was especially fine, the CSO strings elegantly conveying this epitome of Rococo grace. The Rondo finale could have smiled a bit more, but provided the exhilarating closer, taken at a bracing pace with accurate articulation.

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-394-3000.

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