Dame Mitsuko Uchida has been an Artistic Partner of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra since 2016, and they tour widely together. For this concert their tour reached London, where she is as revered as anywhere outside Tokyo perhaps, to judge by the audience welcome as she arrived on the platform. The outer works of the programme, two of Mozart’s most significant piano concertos, certainly played to her strengths.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Mark Allan

She was directing as well, so the piano lid was removed and she sat at the keyboard with her back to the audience. Not that this orchestra needs much conducting, especially when they have just given this programme in Bern, Geneva and Zurich, and when Mozart writes scaled-up chamber music for many passages of these scores. And in violinist Mark Steinberg they have a distinguished concertmaster and leader who has shared much chamber music with Uchida.

Still, even the MCO needs a starting signal and some impetus, which is what Uchida provided. Having led them through the opening tutti of Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, she provided all the mellifluous playing for which she is renowned, and the band had no co-ordination problems when their soloist had both hands engaged. The Adagio was a touching lament in those hands, even in the improvisatory passage before the reprise and the cadenza. The Rondo finale supplanted melancholy with merriment and some dazzling playing from everyone.

Much the same qualities informed the mighty C minor Concerto, with the added gravitas implied by its key, length and scoring. Here there was some modest decoration of the more bare solo lines by Uchida, but mostly she plays only what is found in the score. She apparently does so little with the music, her rubato as natural as breathing, the expressive and dynamic range confined within the stylistic code of the 1780s, that it ought to sound dull. But it is an approach founded on total trust in the composer’s art, so it seems we are hearing Mozart rather than “Uchida’s Mozart”.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida and the Mahler Chamber Orchestra
© Mark Allan

The MCO calls itself “a nomadic collective... uniting for tours across the world”. An itinerant ensemble has no one home of course, or the blend that comes from long familiarity with one acoustic, and once or twice the wind band, especially in the larger group of K491, was quite loud in tuttis relative to the strings. But then turbulence is a strong feature of that work. Whenever the winds were duetting with the piano, we heard Mozart at his most seductive – he wrote both concertos while finishing Le nozze di Figaro, an opera much concerned with seduction.

The centre of the programme was first billed as offering Webern, his Five Movements for String Quartet and the Variations, Op.27. Rare sightings, so many cerebral, stony-hearted Webernians will have booked early. But as before on this tour the MCO’s fine string section played instead four of Purcell’s magnificent Fantasias. Works designed for four viols in some patron’s panelled rooms is one experience, and hearing 25 string players in the Royal Festival Hall is a quite different one. But with such commitment by these accomplished musicians, the counterpoint mostly came through the full texture. So if Purcell’s genius was muted, it was not missing. 

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