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Seen and Heard International Concert Review


Beethoven & Shostakovich: Mitsuko Uchida, piano, New York Philharmonic, Semyon Bychkov, Avery Fisher Hall, New York City, 9 April, 2005 (BH)

Beethoven: Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58 (1806)
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 7, op. 60, “Leningrad” (1953)


Replacing Christoph von Dohnányi who was ill, conductor Semyon Bychkov kept the scheduled concerto and soloist, while changing the remainder of the program to include one of his specialties, Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony.

Before this, however, Mitsuko Uchida gave a thoughtfully plotted Beethoven Fourth Piano Concerto, with an especially fine second movement, the tenderly engaging Andante con moto, which showed her at her most sensitive. The first and third movements were good, if not incandescent. (Perhaps I was spoiled by hearing Radu Lupu’s extraordinary reading of the same piece just a little over a month ago.) Ms. Uchida usually provides more poetry than on this evening, which may be attributed to the last-minute change in personnel – who knows. Sometimes a performance isn’t “transcendent,” nor is it “miserable,” and in this case, “satisfying” will have to do. Bychkov and the ensemble gave her firm support, and plenty of people offered her a standing ovation at the conclusion.

It remains an indelibly quaint factoid to me that at one point, millions of Americans were gathered around their living room radios, listening to Arturo Toscanini conducting the Shostakovich – a scenario that one could hardly imagine happening in today’s world, with a listening public fragmented by musical offerings from thousands of composers, conductors, and musicians. Moreover, this particular work, which is filled with scenes of triumph but also with images of depression and fear, might seem an odd choice to unite a nationwide audience.

Bychkov has recorded the Leningrad, among others of the composer, and as my first live exposure to this conductor’s work, this was very, very impressive. The initial Allegretto fairly leaped off the stage, with a charging, stalwart stride – perhaps a wise approach given that the piece can seem too long in the wrong hands. (I suspect many feel this way even with the right hands, but that’s another story.) The first-movement “invasion sequence” was swiftly dispatched, and made a mockery of Bartók’s parody of its theme. (Yes, it’s a bit inane, but it’s supposed to be banal.) The Philharmonic’s percussion section was a model of sizzling focus during this powerfully terraced sequence, which ultimately exploded with Bychkov ratcheting up the speed at the climax – very thrilling indeed.

What was notable about this evening was Bychkov’s care in moulding the inner movements, which in some interpretations are neglected in favor of the fiery outer ones. He had the measure of all the seismic shifts in the second Moderato, with its crashing waves that then cede to gracious dances, lilting passages that could almost be ballet. The painfully intense Adagio had some poignant brass work, and some sorrowful winds, capped with a soulful viola section near the end. The long fourth movement had many pleasures, with a triumphant ending that had many in the hall on their feet. But as usual with this composer, is the result wholly upbeat, or with a lingering undercurrent? Despite the work’s gigantic sunburst at its conclusion, a colleague with me found this symphony “so sad” – and I can hear what he means.

Bruce Hodges

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