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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 15 [37.51]
Piano Concerto No. 2, Op. 19 [30.24]
Piano Concerto No. 3, Op. 37 [37.41]
Piano Concerto No. 4, Op. 58 [35.46]
Piano Concerto No. 5, Op. 73 ‘Emperor’ [39.41]
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
Berliner Philharmoniker/Sir Simon Rattle
rec. live, 4-20 February 2010, Philharmonie, Berlin
Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc + Concert Video Blu-ray Disc in High Definition with Mitsuko Uchida interview + Download code for high resolution audio file of the entire album + 7 Day Ticket for Digital Concert Hall
BERLINER PHILHARMONIKER BPHR180241 CD/BD-A [182 mins] Blu-ray [215 mins]

Just recently, I reviewed a video and audio presentation of Sir Simon Rattle’s last concerts with the Berliner Philharmoniker as their Chief Conductor. Those concerts took place in June 2018. Here we have a set of Beethoven piano concertos which have been ‘in the can’ a little longer; the performances were given in February 2010. From the accompanying notes we learn that Mitsuko Uchida worked more often with Rattle during his Berlin tenure than any other instrumental soloist. The run of concerts during which they played all five Beethoven concertos occupied some three weeks in February 2010 and Uchida must have considered this to be a very important project because, unusually for her, she went to the trouble of having her own Steinway shipped from London so she could play the concertos on an instrument with which she was intimately familiar.

I’m going to start with the Second Concerto because, despite its number in the canon, it was the first to be written. Appropriately, Rattle uses the smallest string choir and the clarinets, trumpets and timpani that Beethoven was to use in Concerto No 1 are here absent. I was mildly surprised to note that throughout the cycle Rattle opts not to divide his violins left and right. Instead, it’s the violas who sit to his right and the celli are positioned between the violas and the second violins. The double basses are behind the violas. The small orchestral forces for the Second, and Rattle’s stylistic approach, means that we hear a lighter orchestral sound than will be the case at times in the First Concerto. In the first movement of the Second I admired several sparklingly witty touches from Uchida – and her consistently crisp passagework - while the orchestral contribution seemed ideally scaled. Indeed, the playing of the Berliner Philharmoniker reminded me that I’ve always liked Rattle’s Haydn (review). Uchida’s expressive playing in the slow movement is very much to my taste and the hushed closing pages of this movement are played with especial sensitivity, both by her and by the orchestra. Uchida sets a puckish mood for the high-spirited Rondo finale and if you watch the video, you’ll see that she visibly enjoys this movement. She points the music delightfully and Rattle is definitely on the same wavelength. As the movement unfolds there’s a palpable sense of spontaneity and fun; Uchida’s lightness of touch is absolutely right. I enjoyed this finale very much indeed.

The First Concerto is what you’ll hear first if you play the discs in order. I did that first time round and my ear was immediately caught by a point of detail. The way that the strings of the Berliner Philharmoniker weight and enunciate the opening chords of the concerto speaks volumes for their collective skill and for the care with which Rattle has rehearsed. It’s a small detail but it made me sit up and suggested to me that I was going to hear a fine performance – which proved to be the case. Incidentally, the sound of those chords and the way they are placed within the acoustic of the Philharmonie also augur very well for the technical quality of the recordings. The orchestral introduction is lithe and well-shaped with suitable grace in evidence for the phrasing of the second subject. When Uchida plays, she’s animated, graceful or nimble as the music demands. She also seems in full accord with the orchestra. The only slight cavil I have is to wonder if some of the orchestral tuttis are a bit too loud and heavy – I have in mind particularly the lead-up to the cadenza, but this is not the only instance; it just makes me wonder if Rattle is not anticipating too much the style and sound-world of the later concertos. It may be, though, that I’ve just become too accustomed to hearing this work played by small orchestras that have a leaner sound than the Berliner Philharmoniker. What a treat it is to hear such a serene account of the Largo. Both pianist and orchestra offer beautiful playing, though there’s inner strength when required. In the last few bars the clarinet solo is exquisitely shaded. The finale is dexterous and full of joie de vivre.
Rightly, the string section is expanded further for the Third Concerto – an extra desk of each violin part and a fourth double bass are added. A strong orchestral introduction points the way to a reading of the first movement that is purposeful yet which contains many an expressive nuance. Uchida displays athleticism and poetry in equal measure. She begins the Largo in a wonderfully inward fashion; her dreamy, nocturnal playing sets the tone for the movement as a whole, Rattle matching her approach. It’s perhaps worth saying that when I played this movement using the BD-A disc the bass of Uchida’s Steinway reproduced with great richness: I rather liked that but some may find it a bit excessive and will want to tame the playback level, Uchiha’s penultimate solo passage is played with great feeling and delicacy which stands out even in this elevated performance; the orchestral response is equally distinguished. In the finale Uchida’s approach is playful and full of brio and that way with the music informs the whole performance of the movement. The 6/8 Presto coda, irresistibly launched by Uchida, scampers deftly.

When she sits down to play the Fourth Concerto Uchida pauses for several seconds, her hands poised over the keyboard, as she contemplates exactly how to weight that exposed opening. The result is deeply satisfying. Rattle’s way with the following orchestral passage may be controversial for some people because at times he manipulates the tempo, slowing to make an expressive point – the passage between 1:42 and 2:09 is the first such example I noticed, but there are others. It’s noticeable, though, that Uchida allows herself a similar degree of interpretative freedom during the course of the movement, and rightly so, in my view. I like the results, even though the tempo changes aren’t marked, though I can see that some might not be so taken. Uchida and Rattle give a very persuasive account of this movement; it’s expressive, to be sure, but the music is also presented with plenty of backbone. In the Andante con moto, the aristocratic rhetoric of the Berliner Philharmoniker string section is gradually subdued by Uchida’s ‘still, small voice of calm’. And with what feeling she plays once the strings have been reduced to a hush. The finale is full of vitality.

And so, to the ‘Emperor’ with the largest orchestra of all on parade. After the initial grand flourishes, Rattle leads a taut and urgent traversal of the opening tutti. Uchida shows – as if it had ever been in doubt – that she has the measure of this big, Romantic movement, offering sovereign, refined playing. As in the previous concerto, Rattle sometimes moulds the tempo for expressive effect but this seems to me to be in accord with his soloist’s approach. In a wonderful performance of the Adagio un poco mosso Uchiha’s playing is cushioned on a rich bed of orchestral sound. She plays with poise and finesse, distilling the poetry in Beethoven’s writing. The Berliner Philharmoniker play like the musical aristocracy that they are and I especially admired the work of the woodwind principals towards the movement’s end. Uchida leaps joyfully into the concluding Rondo. She and the orchestra treat us to a performance of great brio which brings this Beethoven concerto cycle to a resplendent conclusion.

These performances represent a formidable achievement by Mitsuko Uchida. She plays superbly throughout and I particularly relished the expressive side of her playing. She plays Beethoven’s own cadenzas throughout and makes these into far more than just an opportunity for pianistic exhibition. Yes, there’s virtuosity in the cadenzas but what caught my attention time and again were the poetic nuances she brings to them. I have seen it suggested that these performances betray a lack of rapport between Uchida and Rattle and that the latter’s phrasing is lumpy. I have to say that I came away from these performances having noted none of these issues. Perhaps it helped that I began by viewing the performances. When I watched the concertos, it seemed very evident to me that soloist and conductor were on the same wavelength; furthermore, I noticed how regularly one glances at the other to check that a nuance is being mutually observed or a corner navigated in just the right fashion. At the end of each concerto Uchida’s pleasure in the performance and the support she has received is evident and clearly unfeigned. As for the orchestral phrasing, we all hear music differently but I didn’t notice lumpiness as a trait: quite the reverse; these performances are full of life. In short, these performances seemed to me to be a very fine collaboration between soloist, conductor and orchestra. I enjoyed the performances very much indeed.

As ever with the Berliner Philharmoniker’s own label, the presentation of this release is in the luxury class. Purchasers get a pair of CDs, a BD-A disc and a Blu-ray video disc. I got extremely satisfactory results from the two audio formats – using the stereo facility -and on the video the visual presentation is very good indeed, as is the sound. The package also includes a code which enables you to download a high-resolution audio file of the concertos but I haven’t sampled that. The documentation is outstandingly thorough and there’s also a bonus feature on the video disc in which Mitsuko Uchida talks about the concertos.

This is a high-end product but it’s worth the outlay for a set of top-quality Beethoven performances expertly presented in both sound and vision.

John Quinn

Previous review: Michael Cookson
3 CDs:
Recorded in 24bit / 48 kHz
1 Pure Audio Blu-ray Disc:
Beethoven Piano Concertos 1–5 - In high resolution lossless studio master quality -
Sound options:
2.0 PCM Stereo - 24bit/48 kHz & 5.0 Surround DTS-HD Master Audio 24bit/48 kHz
1 Concert Video Blu-ray disc:
Beethoven Piano Concertos 1–5 - In High Definition Video produced for Berliner Philharmoniker’s Digital Concert Hall [203.00]
Picture Format: Full HD 1080 / 60i – 169
Sound options: LPCM Stereo 2.0ch, 48 kHz/16bit & DTS-HD Master Audio, 5.0 Surround, 48 kHz
Region Code: ABC (worldwide)
Bonus Video - Mitsuko Uchida talks (in English) about Beethoven’s Piano Concertos with Tobias Möller in 2017 [17.59]

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