Top Ear

Uchida’s Cleveland Mozart 18, 19

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Leonard Ip writes [translated from the Chinese by Jeremy Lee]

Reviewers for art forms (be it music, movies or books) are often glad to come across certain types of efforts, and there are two types of this kind of efforts: outstanding efforts, and terrible efforts—things that don’t require lots of thinking to form a value judgment. But of course, extreme examples of both types of efforts are rare, which is why I am extremely privileged to review Uchida’s Cleveland Mozart piano concerto cycle, a cycle that has exhibited undeniably high artistic merits since the first release. And all I have to do is to explain why. Isn’t that lovely?

Uchida’s extremely personal style is quite renowned, but I believe we should recognize that immense technique behind the style, because technique serves the music. Generally, musicians with a strong personal style often have the technical means to express it, and of these kinds of pianists it’s fair to regard Uchida as possibly the best technician of the keyboard—listen to her Debussy Etudes (Philips) to know what I mean. Yet does it mean that she cannot show her technique in Mozart? Quite contrary: her way of intonation and articulation has an astonishing flexibility, allowing her to shape the solo part with complete easy at any given spot.  Singing lines in legato, staccotos of different characters and a chiaroscuro treatment of the textures, all of her inventions bear the mark of a original, creative mind with the perfect musical sense. This live recording is from a concert in April this year, and all the reviews that I have read of the concert mention Uchida’s precision and bell-like tone, which shows Uchida’s consummate and unusual grasp of pianism, and can even be described as a personal transformation of the genuine Mozartean style.

Compared to her previous cycle of Mozart piano concertos with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra in the 1980s-90s, Uchida’s personal style has not seen a dramatic change—indeed, the new version is slightly more detailed. But the greatest difference lies in the orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra’s tone and balance between sections is much more wholesome than that of the ECO’s, and is also more sensitive to Uchida’s inflections. The Cleveland’s nimble yet warm and intimate sound also serves Uchida’s interpretative bent better than the ECO’s grander sonority. To quote Haruki Murakami’s metaphor in his dialogues with Seiji Ozawa, the Cleveland “treats all the details consummately, like screwing each and every screw tightly, one by one”. The first movement of the 18th has five repeated notes in its first theme: the Cleveland violins effortlessly play five immaculately even staccato notes with admirable cleanliness, while the ECO violins give you the impression that they are playing “just five notes”—much less clearer in comparison. These results are a good example of the case where not having a conductor is preferable to having one.

When I reviewed the installment of the 9th and 21st concertos, I still had a few reservations for Uchida’s strong style (too strong for my taste), but this time I did not feel even a slight reservation—Uchida’s juxtaposition between Mozartean drama and expressivity is just spot on, and the way she does it can be described as a “force of nature”. Observe how she enters in the adagio of the 18th: completely naturally and inevitably, with the utmost organic-ness in expression. Maybe the music has changed, maybe I have changed, but in any event this performance remains the most imaginative, sophisticated Mozart playing around.


  • Album name:  Mozart:  Piano Concerto 18 and 19
  • Performers:  Mitsuko Uchida (piano);  Cleveland Orchestra
  • Label:  Decca 4786763
  • Sonics:  Stereo DDD
  • Total playing time:  1:00:48

Author: Top Ear

Musical hooligans.

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