BSO/Uchida: Haunting and Resplendent – The Boston Musical Intelligencer

Mitsuko Uchida accepts ovation (Aram Boghosian photo)

This week’s BSO concerts with conductor Andris Nelsons offer two fifths: Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, the Emperor, with the revered pianist Mitsuko Uchida and Shostakovich’s haunting and energetic 5th Symphony, known for its outward apologia, inner sarcasm, and unique references.

Uchida, widely and deservedly praised for her interpretation of this concerto, has recorded it a number of times with different maestros, including Seiji Ozawa, Sir Simon Rattle, and Kurt Sanderling. Wrapped in a diaphanous aquamarine blouse over black pants, she appeared lean and resplendent as a dragonfly poised to strike (dragonflies, known for their accuracy, kill their prey 97% of the time). Uchida captured both concerto and the audience, despite looking on guard at the start, perhaps chilly, wrapping her hands around her upper arms between passages. Her phrasing—incisive, expressive, and delighting —belied any possible discomfort.

Unusual for its time, a single E-flat orchestral chord announces the initial Allegro, allowing the pianist to enter with a flourishing cadenza followed by two more orchestral chords with pianistic embellishments after each. Uchida provided an intelligent approach from the get-go. Following the still refreshing introduction the sonata form dominates the movement, with march-like, even militaristic tone, despite melodic beauty. Uchida allowed each phrase to breathe, though the orchestra initially responded like cars in a traffic jam but became responsive and nuanced as the concerto progressed. Mid-movement, pianist and orchestra synched up, facilitating verve and sparkle.

In the Adagio un poco mosso Uchida gifted the audience with an expressive rendition of Beethoven’s lyrical B major theme, followed by the four variations. Muted strings and winds imparted a mystical conversation with the soloist. The second movement links directly to the third, led by a lone bassoon playing a B that drops to B flat and then zips into the outgoing Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo, with its ABACABA structure—a long, exuberant movement played here by both Uchida and the BSO with accurate, joyous romping. In sum, a resplendent performance, which delighted all.

The intermission served as a temporal palate cleanser in which many peered out at the glorious Friday afternoon; some 20% of the audience took off to enjoy it. Those who abandoned the hall really blew it. The Shostakovich 5th rewarded those who stayed with passion, excitement, and musical intrigue. The composer penned it as an evident apologia after Pravda issued harsh criticism of his Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk. Labeled by the composer as “A Soviet Artist’s Practical and Creative Response to Just Criticism,” the work appears contrite, yet is filled with hidden musical sarcasm. It is a treat to experience the orchestra’s romance with Dmitri S., as Nelsons and the orchestra are recording all 15 symphonies. The 5th, currently the most popular of Shostakovich’s symphonies, presents an apparently solid 4-movement symphonic build—not unlike the Beethoven’s Eroica, to which comparisons are often made—yet many savory innovations and hidden messages emerge.

The Moderato came across as it should be cast—apparently conventional, yet replete with schism, diving in with the exposition’s punctate, insistent rhythm in the strings and then with verve, delivering the work’s hidden quotations, among them from Mahler, “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” and the Internationale.

In the Allegretto, the delightful spoof on the waltz form emerged, as Nelsons painted the scene of dance and rivalries. The Largo presents a requiem, evocative of liturgical work heard in the Russian orthodox church, yet deceptive.  Here Nelsons imparted the intended quiet, somber mood translated through the violins at the start, and subsequently shifted to the winds, introduced by two flutes with dissonance, other winds and developed into occasional small aggressive burst of sound culminating with what seems either like lamentation or even accusation with clarinet, xylophone and piano and then, at the end, apparently compliantly prayerful, with the celeste.  Nelsons’s prowess as a conductor shone in the Allegro non troppo, which expands themes from earlier in the symphony, until the trumpet introduces a novel melody transferred to the strings.  The movement becomes more tranquil in its midsection, and then a funereal march with reprise of earlier melodies, passed from timpani to winds, and then strings emerges. The minor key of the movement ends in major, triumphantly.  After the last notes resounded throughout Symphony Hall, the audience stamped and cheered.

Hearing it again this week seems like a great idea. Many in the hall were saying the just that, but this morning some outside ticket services are charging up to $672 per seat and Symphony Hall has few left.

Amateur pianist and long-time music aficionado Julie Ingelfinger enjoys day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.

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