RECORDING OF THE MONTH

Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
(1756-91)
Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466 (1785) [33:27]
Piano Concerto No. 27 in B flat major, K. 595 (1791) [32:19]
Mitsuko Uchida (piano and director)
Cleveland Orchestra
rec. 15, 17, 18 April 2010, Severance Hall, Cleveland
DECCA 4782596 [65:46]

Relatively recently Dame Mitsuko Uchida has joined the endless succession of soloists who now direct from the keyboard - or, in some cases, violin or cello. She is also, on the evidence of this CD, one of the most outstandingly successful. I am sure the Cleveland Orchestra would play superlatively well even if a chimpanzee were conducting them, but interpreting great music in a way that radiates meaning and character is quite another matter. It has to be said that many of those in the soloist-turned-conductor ranks are at best adequate and, I suspect, motivated by the prospect of larger fees. Ms. Uchida - she prefers not to use her title publicly - not only achieves complete unity with the Cleveland players, but also imbues the music with quiet but powerful personality. These performances are poised and in no way ostentatious. There is just enough restraint at the opening of the D minor, and certainly no lack of tension surely the most vital element. These are definitely performances to live with, free from exaggeration or interpretative quirks and more deeply rewarding on each listening. It has been said that Ms. Uchida errs on the side of Beethoven, but I really do not see why this should be considered a fault. She is by no means the first pianist to show how close those two composers are at times.

Each of these concertos has a central movement of Romanza character. The D minor is actually so labelled, while that in the B flat is not, but it surely belongs in this family. Ms. Uchida's performance of the D minor slow movement is a model of unaffected simplicity, the stormy middle section powerful without being hectic; neither is the following rondo hectic. The same genuine simplicity works just as marvellously in the Larghetto of the B flat Concerto. Here the tempo is just a little con moto, whereas many pianists take a slightly slower speed which can lead to a feeling of indulgence. In both movements Ms. Uchida ornaments the melodic line in the most convincing way I have ever heard unfussy and unselfconscious. Tempos for the outer movements are eminently sensible, by which I mean wise. Judicious is often used as a euphemism for dull, but here it is meant in the best sense of the word. The opening movement of K595 may at first seem steady, but Ms. Uchida's expressive moulding of the melodic lines increases the pathos of this music, underlining its bleaker aspect. If I may put on a soapbox manner, I would say that tempo in itself is usually not critically important. What really matters is what you do - how you phrase, how you sustain - within the chosen tempo. Only the greatest artists can take a slightly risky tempo, a little slower or faster than usual, and convince you of its validity.

Perhaps the coda to the rondo of K. 466 is a bit unsmiling, a little strait-laced, but this is the smallest of points. Ms. Uchida plays Beethoven's cadenzas in the D minor and Mozart's own in the B flat. This is an outstanding CD by one of the greatest Mozart players of our time, beautifully recorded.

Philip Borg-Wheeler

An outstanding CD by one of the greatest Mozart players of our time, beautifully recorded.