Pianist Mitsuko Uchida is a favorite Cleveland Orchestra soloist with local audiences. She has performed a wide range of concertos, from Schoenberg to Beethoven, but she is most known for her complete cycle of Mozart concertos, conducted from the keyboard, that spanned five seasons from 2002-2007. In recent years, she has been revisiting her pianist/conductor role with selections from the concertos. She returned this weekend for two concertos (nos. 6 and 26). Sandwiched between them on this short program was the Symphony no. 34 in C major, K.338, led by violinist William Preucil from his concertmaster seat. The performances were elegant in a generalized way, and there were many moments to admire; however, as with many things, the devil was in the details.

Mitsuko Uchida © Richard Avedon
Mitsuko Uchida
© Richard Avedon

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 6 in B flat major, K.238, was written in 1776  when the composer was 20 years old. It was performed here with a quite small chamber orchestra: 6 each of first and second violins; 4 violas, 4 cellos, 2 double basses, 2 oboes, 2 flutes, and 2 horns. The oboes play only in the first and third movements, and the flutes play only in the second. In early performances, the flutes and oboes would have been played by the same performers. Not so in our modern age of specialization. The piano was situated with the performer’s back to the audience. Despite being an early work, the concerto is a miniature gem. The movements are short, but well-proportioned. Cadenzas encapsulate the thematic materials perfectly. The performers captured the intimacy of the second movement, and the dance-like quality of the third movement.

In contrast, the Concerto no. 26 in D major, K.537 (“Coronation”) seemed gargantuan by comparison. Written in 1788, the first documented performance took place in 1789. The “Coronation” nickname was not Mozart’s; it was applied after Mozart’s death by his publisher to encourage increased sales. The work is for a larger orchestra than the Concerto no. 6, including trumpets, bassoons and timpani, as well as larger string sections. The movements are longer and the material more fully developed. The piano part is more virtuosic (especially the lengthy first movement cadenza) and the orchestral part is of equal interest. The sharp dynamic contrasts in the third movement created a sense of drama, while the lyric second movement was gracefully lyric.

Although there is an historical precedent of soloists conducting these concertos from the keyboard – indeed, back to Mozart himself – it can be said that for all of her musical and intellectual brilliance and performing achievements, Mitsuko Uchida’s technical skills as a conductor are rudimentary. She got things started, and then the musicians were more or less left on their own. At a number of points, concertmaster Preucil could be observed giving nodded cues when the soloist was fully engaged in her playing. Details of phrasing and cut-offs were often smudged. Although Uchida had undoubtedly communicated to the players during rehearsal her artistic aims in these concertos, it is a credit to the chamber music skills of The Cleveland Orchestra that they listened and responded to each other to make for satisfactory performances. But a separate conductor could have made them even better.

Preucil’s leadership from his position as concertmaster in the Symphony No. 34 in C major, K.338, in three movements was successful. The orchestra was sparkling in the first movement, with its trumpet fanfares, capitalizing on Mozart’s sophisticated formal scheme for the movement. The second movement by comparison seemed a little bland, with some unkempt details. The third movement, a rousing tarantella dance, was full of surprise harmonic progressions. Preucil seemed to have the confidence of his players, and this performance was much more solid than the two concertos.