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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Five Piano Concertos: Piano Concertos – No. 1 in C, Op. 15a (1795) [38'29]; No. 2 in B flat, Op. 19a (1798) [30'58]; No. 3 in C minor, Op. 37b (1800) [37'14]; No. 4 in G, Op. 58b (1806) [34'38]; No. 5 in E flat, Op. 73, 'Emperorc (1809) [39'43]. 32 Variations on an Original Theme in C minor, WoO80d (1806) [11'13].
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestraac, Concertgebouw Orchestrab/Kurt Sanderling.
Rec. Herkulesaal, Munich in July 1997a and November 1998cd; Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, in November 1994b (No. 4 is a live performance).
PHILIPS 4756757 [3 CDs: 69'43 + 72'21 + 51'19]


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No surprise that a musician of such integrity and intelligence as Uchida has bided her time when it comes to Beethoven.

She has been performing the concertos for a while (I remember a Third at the Royal Festival Hall in around 1984 with Salonen conducting), and recent forays into late Beethoven Sonatas at the RFH provided much food for thought (see links to reviews below).

The early concertos (Nos. 1 and 2) suit her well. Interestingly the orchestral exposition to the First (the Bavarian orchestra) feels on the slow side. The recording is detailed and involving, if a touch boomy. Uchida clearly has ten absolutely equal fingers - just what one needs for this piece - so double trills emerge perfectly. Pedal is in the main eschewed; the cadenza is particularly dry. I missed Pollini's 'joke' - yes, you read correctly! - at the end of his version of the cadenza in his Jochum recording: a sudden crash after the pp spread.

The First's slow movement is that concerto's highlight here. It flows magnificently, and to hear Uchida is akin to hearing fine porcelain translated into sound. The piano-clarinet passages work well. The finale, alas, is the weakest movement, low of voltage, more Mozart than Beethoven; it lacks that essential dynamism. Uchida wakes up for the first time in this movement at the cadenza!

The Second Concerto - the first to be written - brings mismatch of soloist and conductor to the fore. The orchestra feels quite heavy, in contrast to Uchida's wonderfully light, transparent entry. Decades before this, a similar union of different personalities – Klemperer and Barenboim – had yielded very different results. Interestingly, though, soloist and conductor here find an unexpected pool of stillness (around 4'30). The recording's depth makes the slow movement a delight: slow and concentrated, the end is gripping. Only the finale again disappoints, with Uchida identifiably careful and the orchestra sluggish.

The Third is extremely successful, right from the pregnant expectancy of the octave-strings. Uchida projects sudden shifts of emotion well and shadings are very appealing. Only adrenaline is low, despite a surprisingly muscular cadenza. No surprise that the slow movement is rapt and that the chamber-music side is pronounced; the wind exchanges accompanied by piano in particular. The staccato scales near the end are miraculous. And for the first time in the cycle the finale is a success. Energy is at a carefully-planned level, not too dynamic. Similarly the coda is clean but exciting.

The Fourth is live and the recording is if anything better. Spacious yet detailed and warm, it seems perfect for this concerto. Right from the perfectly balanced first chord it is clear Uchida is on the right wavelength, exuding a serene confidence that never once deserts her. The businesslike, almost brusque, orchestra is the ideal foil to the piano's retorts in the slow movement, leading to a superbly musical finale. The 'Emperor' is a daunting challenge, and all credit to Uchida for her pristine flourishes that open this account. The orchestra's re-entry into the movement proper is perhaps a little bland here.

Uchida sees the 'Emperor' as a glittering jewel of a piece. Well-groomed and with sparkling scales aplenty, this is perhaps not enough, and this is why there is a sag around 10'30. It is the slow movement that reveals Uchida's magic. After a well-shaped orchestral beginning, it is Uchida who takes us to whole new worlds – the bridge into the finale is unforgettable.

Rather than begin with an explosion of energy, Uchida sees a last movement that sparkles and dances. Again though, a 'sag' is evident. One hopes this will not be her last recorded comment on this piece.

The 32 Variations in C minor round off the set. The recording suddenly brings the piano much closer, but once the requisite adjustment has been made there is a huge amount to enjoy. As Beethoven explores myriad keyboard textures and techniques, Uchida shares in this spirit of discovery. It is almost tempting to describe these Variations as the highlight of the set. Insulting though that may sound - it’s not meant to be - this final track encompasses what is special about Uchida the musician: complete dedication to the score and the composer from a pianist of no small musical insight.

Colin Clarke

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