It can’t be often that a musician celebrated the world over as one of the finest piano soloists of our time finds herself towards the rear of a stage shared with orchestral musicians. So it was at Wigmore Hall, however, when Mitsuko Uchida took to the Wigmore Hall platform with violinist Daishin Kashimoto, cellist Ludwig Quandt and clarinettist Wenzel Fuchs, all of whom figure on the roster of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. Practically, of course, such placement – the pianist behind the other instrumentalists – is to be expected for such an ensemble; but, quite unusually considering her reputation, in the main work on the evening’s programme, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour la fin du temps, Uchida’s literal back seat was often a metaphorical one, too. In this strange, unique work, when playing at all, the pianist frequently takes little more than a supporting role. However, even with her universally acclaimed skills geared towards this more accompanying role, Uchida’s inimitable control over her instrument was such that no pianist of lesser calibre could have compared. Even from the back, she shone.

Mitsuko Uchida © Decca / Justin Pumfrey
Mitsuko Uchida
© Decca / Justin Pumfrey

Anyway, it’s not as if the appearance of the Japanese virtuoso was the sole reason the ensemble were playing to a full house: Kashimoto, Quandt and Fuchs are all soloists in their own right, and showed as much, too, with virtuosic performances of their own. Furthermore, the programming of the Messiaen with pieces by Berg and Schubert made for an intriguing programme, contrasting two 20th-century composers of highly refined and vastly different post-tonal languages with the master of early 19th-century harmony.

It was with a movement from Berg’s Chamber Concerto that the concert began. The composer wrote this three-movement work for his mentor Schoenberg’s 50th birthday, and it was for his own 50th that he transcribed the Adagio for violin, clarinet and piano. It is an emotionally taut, volatile piece, shifting in a flash from frantic, tempestuous passages to sedate, tranquilised sections, as if the effort and energy of the former left the music exhausted, slipping into a state of lassitude. The piano is the driving force behind these state-shifts, from its chromatically altered, almost jazzy chords under a luscious violin at the start – which seemed to hint at Gershwin’s Summertime – to its clamorous coaxing of the clarinet into violent flutterings. The ensemble’s dynamic range was dramatic, and if at the louder moments Uchida and Kashimoto overwhelmed Fuchs somewhat, this was as much an issue of orchestration as performative heavy-handedness. Kashimoto and Uchida’s combined quietness and exceptional control meant the incredibly rarefied, atmospheric ending – in which the violin rises to stratospheric altitude then descends in a slow, unshakeable, pianissimo succession of fifths and fourths – was breathtaking.

Schubert’s Notturno in E flat followed, Fuchs making way for Quandt, whose rich cello tones were heard throughout in almost constant consonance with Kashimoto’s violin. In fact, this proliferation of juicy thirds and sixths, confined within one of Schubert’s less exploratory harmonic ranges, made this piece seem rather saturated, lacking the swerves of direction that invigorates so much of Schubert’s music. The performance, however, provided in expression what the piece lacked in invention, and Uchida’s tender touch infused both beginning and ending with a beautiful intimacy.

Intimacy was a defining feature of the ensemble’s Messiaen, too, although the Quatuor is equally expansive, looking both inwards and outwards with the vividness and profundity of vision that characterises Messiaen’s music. Solo movements are interspersed with those for all four players, which in turn contrast vastly in texture, from the extraordinarily powerful almost entirely unison Danse de fureur, pour les sept trompettes to the more fragmented Vocalise pour l’Ange qui annonce la fin du Temps. This latter movement, the work’s second, was absolutely exquisite, with Uchida smashing out violent trills before effervescing into descending pianissimo chords, dropping like falling ash behind a protracted chromatic melody in octaves on muted violin and cello. This was perhaps the ensemble at its most precisely together: later in the work the odd temporal discrepancy crept in occasionally.

Fuchs’ Abîme des oiseaux solo was utterly transfixing in its combination of brilliant birdsong passages, extraordinarily fragile whisper tones, and an expert control of tone over the movement’s slow, expressive wanderings. Quandt could not quite match this mastery in his Louange à l’Eternité de Jésus, but the gorgeous sound of the high tenor register, backed by rich, major chords in the piano, created an intensely spiritual atmosphere filled with blissful yearning.

But it was Kashimoto’s final utterance that crowned the performance. Louange à l’Immortalité de Jésus is a deeply moving postlude for violin and piano with a protracted violin line which seems to have imbibed all that has gone before, transcending it as it winds upwards to disappear into eternity. Kashimoto and Uchida once again combined their remarkable control over the lowest dynamics, leaving me reeling for sheer beauty.