surprise that a musician of such integrity and intelligence
as Uchida has bided her time when it comes to Beethoven.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.