Listening to Mitsuko Uchida at last night’s Prom, it struck me that Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto is the most chameleon-like of works, sounding quite different every time I hear it performed by a different pianist. While others make it a fiery or an imposing work, Uchida’s rendering was refined, delicate, sensitive: often, she bent low over the piano as if to be sure of catching every nuance of every note.

Mitsuko Uchida performs with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms © BBC/Chris Christodoulou
Mitsuko Uchida performs with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra at the BBC Proms
© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The word “refined” also applied to the playing of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra under Mariss Jansons. This is clearly a set of musicians who are supremely comfortable playing together: as the music ebbs and flows, you can see the string players swaying together as one. The clarity and lustre of the sound was particularly evident in the first movement, with every note precisely delineated.

In the second movement’s dialogue between piano and orchestra, the contrasts became more marked: the heavy “sempre staccato” chords of the orchestra played almost violently to emphasise the contrast to the gentle musing of the piano. In the subsequent cadenza, the roles were reversed, Uchida playing at her most vigourously until the movement was closed by the evanescent orchestral bars that lead into the finale. This was a return to the refinement of the first movement, with playing of the utmost clarity and the ability of both soloist and orchestra to craft perfectly formed musical phrases. No tortured romanticism was in evidence: an elegant court outing, perhaps, rather than a walk in the wild woods.

Uchida’s playing was rapturously received, and she proceeded to steal the entire show with an encore: the sarabande from Bach’s French Suite in G. It was one of those pieces where Bach takes you for a wander through all manner of tonalities: your ear knows the way back to the home key, and he eventually brings you back there. It was a completely personal performance: we could have been watching Uchida in her living room. I was transfixed.

After the interval, we settled down to Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique. (Berlioz nerds will have been delighted to get a rare sight of a real ophicleide in the orchestra rather than a second tuba.) It’s a long symphony (for its period, at least), and Jansons chose a slow ratcheting up of the tension and romanticism as the work progressed. The first movement, entitled “Dreams, Passions”, was restrained (more dreamy than passionate), and the second movement ball came across as a decidedly posh affair. It was in the third movement that the tension began to rise, with the gentleness of the oboe/cor anglais dialogue between the shepherds interrupted by the gathering storms both of the weather and of the narrator’s imaginings. Two of the four timpani were located high above either side of the stage, giving an impressive sense of width that you would never get from listening to a recording.

The restraint diminished further in the fourth movement, “March to the scaffold”, with increased weight on the accents. By the fifth movement, “Dreams of a Sabbath Night”, the shackles were well and truly off, with the orchestra giving us a fevered series of wild imaginings. The repeated Dies irae motif came through with particular force, as did the sounding of tubular bells: as with the timpani in the third movement, we again got a great sense of breadth by them being played from high above the stage.

Symphonie Fantastique is a work full of invention and full of contrasts; by the end, I realised that the restrained start had served well to emphasise these. Once again, the orchestra received a rapturous reception from a packed Royal Albert Hall. They responded with a no-holds-barred encore, Ligeti’s 1951 folk-based Concert Romanesc, an idiosyncratic piece to put a smile on everyone’s faces.