.Mitsuko Uchida arrived several days early to start preparing for her ongoing recording project with the Cleveland Orchestra, a series of Mozart piano concertos on Decca. Nearly 20 years after completing a set of 21 concertos with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra (on Philips), she is revisiting a number of them at Severance Hall, where the pieces are being recorded live. The setting offers superb acoustics and the comfort of a longstanding relationship; Uchida’s first appearance with the orchestra was in 1990, and she was artist-in-residence in Cleveland for five seasons, from 2002 to 2007. Over the past seven years, she has recorded eight Mozart concertos with the orchestra.

Mitsuko Uchida with the Cleveland Orchestra © Roger Mastroianni
Mitsuko Uchida with the Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni

Oddly, not much of this was evident in the Concerto no. 17 in G major (K453), the opening piece of three all-Mozart concerts. With Uchida conducting from the keyboard, the orchestra sounded slightly out of joint. Starting with concertmaster William Preucil, the strings lagged a hair’s-breadth behind her, an effect that grew more pronounced as it worked its way through the first violins. 

At first blush, it seemed to be a matter of placement. Playing facing the musicians with her back to the audience, Uchida had Preucil on her left and the woodwinds directly in front of her. The connection with the latter was breathtaking, a seamless flow from the liquid stream of Uchida’s piano lines to a radiant glow in the woodwinds that positively lit up the second movement in particular. The tempo and tone were also beautifully in synch, understated and gentle, with the characteristic warmth and subtlety that Uchida brings to Mozart.

The strings were flat by comparison, which is a rarity. The orchestra is known worldwide for its silken strings, which typically sound golden even in the most mundane pieces. It was disquieting, if revealing, to see how an apparent glitch in communication between the conductor and concertmaster could make the strings turn sluggish and dull. Uchida herself seemed a bit flustered in the final movement, as if distracted by trying to compensate for the problem.

A conductorless Symphony no. 34 in C major offered a break and fresh energy, with Preucil setting a quicker, tighter pace that seemed to revive the strings and restore a full, rich sound. The caliber of the Cleveland Orchestra players came to the fore in the musicality and momentum of a vibrant first movement, a tender second with melodies that curled through the ensemble on cat’s paws, and a soaring third that lifted the lethargy from the audience, which responded with an immediate burst of enthusiastic applause. The piece might have benefited from a bit more depth and definition, but the sheer joy in the music was irresistible.

Whatever the communication problem was apparently got fixed during intermission, as the finale offered a convincing portrait of a virtuoso artist at work. Rising from the bench and raising her arms like a priest celebrating Mass, Uchida got the Concerto no. 25 in C major (K503) off to a dramatic start. The orchestra stayed at that level to match her ringing piano lines, then dropped to a soft translucency in an exquisitely crafted second movement that featured elegant, glimmering keyboard work. By the third movement you could almost feel the musicians breathing together, as every orchestral passage ended on a slightly expectant note to set up the piano solos, and a thrilling finish left an electric charge in the air. Uchida hugged Preucil and took the deepest bows in show business, once again the master and servant of the genius composer.

Critics have remarked on the restrained nature of Uchida’s return to the Mozart concertos, particularly in comparison to the versions she made with the ECO. The new interpretations are more considered and introspective, played with the same grace and careful craftsmanship, but stylistically more mature, even melancholy at times. Certainly that was the case in this performance, which started with a tempo so slow it verged on plodding – perhaps the source of the initial disconnect.

But the timing and tone were reset without losing any of the thoughtfulness or new dimensions Uchida is bringing to this endlessly fascinating body of work. By the time her new series is finished, it seems she will have something fresh and perhaps wiser to say.