New Classical Tracks: Eloquent Mozart from Uchida

by Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
May 24, 2011
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St. Paul, Minn. — Mitsuko Uchida first recorded a cycle of Mozart piano concertos in the 1980's with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra. At that time, she says, if anyone had told her she'd be playing the complete Mozart Piano Concerto cycle again with the Cleveland Orchestra, she would have laughed in disbelief. Performing with players of this quality was something she could only imagine in her wildest dreams. After spending five years as the orchestra's artist-in-resident, Uchida has had the last laugh. She also earned her first Grammy Award this year for one in a series of live recordings of Mozart's concertos. On her latest disc she continues that series with the Cleveland Orchestra, performing two of Mozart's most popular late piano concertos: No. 20 (K 466) and No. 27 (K 595).

As a child in Japan, Uchida fell in love with Mozart while listening to her father's massive record collection. Her father was a diplomat and at age 12 this budding pianist moved with her family to Vienna, where Mozart lived his last decade. Her relationship with Mozart deepened as she studied at the Vienna Academy and attended performances in Vienna's concert halls and opera house. "In his music, she explains, "every note means so much, as if it has its own life. Every note is almost a human being with its past and its future. Unless you understand it, it is very difficult." Uchida has spent years deepening her understanding of Mozart's music. What she's discovered is that at the core, Mozart is like Shakespeare. He uses the simplest means to elevate the listener into a universal world of absolute joy and sorrow.

The Piano Concerto No. 20 in d minor, K. 466, is the stormier of Mozart's two concertos written in a minor key. Nervous syncopation opens the first movement, setting the stage for its restless atmosphere. This powerful work made an astonishing impression on the young Beethoven. He wrote two cadenzas for this concerto, both of which Mitsuko Uchida plays on this live recording. The cadenza in the first movement sounds simple at the start. The tension and drama climax into a wave of dazzling passagework played effortlessly by Uchida. Mozart gives no tempo indication in the slow Romance. On her 1985 recording, Mitsuko Uchida played this movement slower, and more deliberately. Twenty-five years later with the Cleveland Orchestra, she approaches this lush Romance with a stronger sense of balance and a quicker tempo. This time Uchida and the orchestra are listening more intently to one another because Uchida is also leading the orchestra, "If there is no conductor, but the soloist is actually conducting from the keyboard," she explains, "the orchestra players have to listen more carefully, they are not playing with the eyes, but they are listening with their ears. That means, the collaboration is that much closer. They are listening to my sound," she continues, "I am eyeing every single person in the orchestra." Uchida says having the soloist lead the orchestra can be very beneficial. "The advantage of playing without the conductor with the soloist directly at the keyboard is that my back is to the audience. I am having my entire wind section just in front of my nose, and I see everybody. I can look at every face and they look at you. And that is often enough. You don't need any hands for that." The finale of this concerto is propelled by the piano. One charming feature of this closing movement is an almost awkward tune sung in F Major by the woodwinds.

Mozart's final piano concerto, No. 27 in B Flat Major, was written for what turned out to be his last concert appearance, a benefit concert for the clarinetist Joseph Beer in March, 1791. This work is whimsical and a bit mischievous, especially in the first movement during the long orchestral introduction. This concerto calls for a pared-down orchestra where clarinets, trumpets and timpani are noticeably absent. The flirtatious strings and the fleeting piano passages add to its light-hearted mood. Mozart makes his most profound statement in the introspective Larghetto. Time seems to stand still as Uchida luxuriates her way through the captivating melody. It's a simple statement of sublime beauty.

Mitsuko Uchida believes that no matter what direction life has taken her, or how she has developed as a performer one thing remains the same: her sound. "My sound is like a human voice," she explains, "When I play piano, the piano sounds like my voice. The DNA of my voice does not change, but the voice changes every day." As you enjoy the latest in her series of live Mozart piano concerto recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra, you'll hear that Uchida's voice still sparkles. Her eloquence, and passion will still enthrall you.

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