Given that Dame Mitsuko Uchida is such a staunch champion of Schoenberg’s music, including him in her choice of encores and frequently performing his piano concerto, I had half expected to see her standing in front of the fifteen players that he requires for his Chamber Symphony no. 1. After all, some famous conducting names have been in charge of Mozart’s “Gran Partita” serenade, and that only specifies a band of thirteen. But that was not the case here in this latest concert given by the Mahler Chamber Orchestra as part of an extended tour.

The Mahler Chamber Orchestra plays Schoenberg
© Geoffroy Schied

It took a live performance of Schoenberg’s Erwartung to alert me to the teeming drama of much of his music. At a time when the musical world was moving towards ever more gargantuan symphonic constructions, all ringing with nods to Brahms, Strauss and Wagner, here was the leading exponent of the Second Viennese School striking a completely opposite course in 1906. All but two of the players stood for this performance, powerfully led by José Maria Blumenschein, endowing it with the quality of directness and immediacy, the virtuoso team superbly well blended but also allowing space for individual solo lines.

The single-movement work closely follows the pattern of a more traditional symphony. Quite apart from the cohesion derived from motivic connections based on fourths, the piece bristles with mercurial shifts in tone and texture as well as ear-catching technical details: repeated pizzicatos delivered with dramatic intensity, col legno effects introducing a degree of spookiness, stopped horns adding a touch of menace, a bassoon line reminding me of Mahler’s second Nachtmusik from his Seventh Symphony, written just two years earlier, the lush chromaticism of the Adagio section giving the lie to claims that Schoenberg and his disciples only produced “intellectual” music, and not least the physicality of the concluding pages where helter-skelter excitement builds, the notes pouring forth from a seemingly endless cornucopia of sounds. This was one of those performances which I wanted to hear all over again.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Geoffroy Schied

When Uchida plays Mozart, one is tempted to reach for superlatives. Two of his piano concertos framed the later work cast in the Viennese tradition. Uchida has altered her sound palette preferences over the years, and now adopts a noticeably period feel for the K503 concerto, with little vibrato, natural trumpets and hard-sticked timpani. Wind and brass dominated the long orchestral introduction, taken quite briskly, and it was this astringency together with several staccato accents which slightly robbed the opening Allegro maestoso of its character. However, there was no questioning that this was chamber-like playing on an extraordinarily high level. Uchida and her 37 players were on the same wavelength, responding with old-fashioned courtoisie to each intervention. If ultimately it was the elegance of the salon rather than the spaciousness of the Hall of Mirrors, the jewel-box was open on display, the individual stones gleaming and glittering.

I’m tempted to argue that K595, a softer-grained piece, is a more appropriate vehicle for Uchida’s remarkable pianism than the earlier concerto. She perfectly judged the sombre mood of the opening Allegro, giving it the quality of a candle-lit soirée, the pauses pregnant with meaning just before the descent into the minor key, the luminescence of her playing a thing of wondrous beauty. But it was the Larghetto which stood out for me, phrased with utter simplicity, her ravishing tone set against the hushed strings, quite exquisite in realisation, allowing the spirit to float free of the clouds above. To recall Robert Browning’s words, this was a case of “God’s in his heaven, All’s right with the world”.