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Tchaikovsky, Respighi, Stravinsky: Ayako Uehara (piano), London Symphony Orchestra, Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, Barbican, 23 March 2005 (TJH)

It was with her interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous First Piano Concerto that Ayako Uehara became not only the first Japanese pianist, but the first woman, to win the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in 2002. Her subsequent recital disc on EMI, released last year, was an all-Tchaikovsky affair which earned good notices, especially for her performance of the rarely heard G major Piano Sonata. Why then did she seem so strangely ill-suited to Tchaikovsky’s idiom in her performance of that inevitable First Concerto with the London Symphony Orchestra on Wednesday? It certainly wasn’t a lack of technique. She had some wonderful tricks up her sleeve – rapid-fire staccato arpeggios, expert deployment of the sustain pedal – and she had a superbly clear and full-bodied tone which one suspects might be perfectly suited to a composer like Brahms. Ultimately, though, she seemed to be missing the sheer muscle required to bring off the solo part of Tchaikovsky’s First; the opening volley of chords seemed far too polite, and she let the orchestra overwhelm her in the hocketing struggle for dominance that precedes the cadenza. The low-voltage power was partially compensated for by the sparkling clarity of her playing, and the finale, at least, seemed to have a greater sense of purpose to it, perhaps because its tighter construction allowed for less of the self-conscious noodling in which she indulged in the Andantino. One gets the sense that Uehara will be a very worthwhile artist once she finds the right repertoire for her particular talents; sadly though, on this occasion she simply felt miscast.

Her partner on the podium did not help matters any, either. Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos is a relatively infrequent visitor to British orchestras, but he is an active recording artist and has built up a minor reputation as an interpreter of the music of his countryman, Manuel de Falla. The biggest problem with his conducting on Wednesday was his seeming inability to connect individual phrases into longer paragraphs, resulting in disjointed and generally routine performances of Respighi’s Fountains of Rome and Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. The former, written ten years before the more popular Pines of Rome, had an undifferentiated Ravelian sheen about it, only briefly flickering to life in the brassy third movement depicting the Trevi fountain. The Stravinsky was even less successful, with phrase after phrase petering out midway and collapsing in a heap, totally ruining any sense of forward momentum. Little pockets of dead air kept creeping into the textures, making a mockery of the twittering woodwind interplay in the Introduction, and even the orchestral workout that is Kaschei’s Infernal Dance chugged along prosaically rather than zinging raucously around the orchestra as it should. Needless to say, the LSO performed perfectly competently, but then again they can play this sort of thing in their sleep; it’s just as well frankly, because Wednesday’s performances were about as somnolent as it gets.

Tristan Jakob-Hoff

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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)