Is there anyone more closely associated with Mozart's piano concertos today than Dame Mitsuko Uchida? From season to season and city to city, the one constant seems to be the opportunity to hear Uchida play Mozart, and few things could be more rewarding. Her partnership with Cleveland runs especially deep, having served as the orchestra’s artist-in-residence from 2002-07, during which she performed the complete cycle of Mozart’s concertos, many of which were later recorded here in the years that followed. This weekend’s offerings were particularly intriguing in that she selected works that spanned the composer’s career, from the youthful no. 5 to the autumnal no. 27.

Dame Mitsuko Uchida © Jean Radel
Dame Mitsuko Uchida
© Jean Radel

Despite its name, the Piano Concerto no. 5 in D major is Mozart’s first bona fide work in the medium, the previous four (along with a further unnumbered set of three) being merely arrangements of works by others, meant more as pedagogical exercises for the incipient composer than concert pieces. Entering the stage to hearty applause, Uchida sat facing the orchestra rather than in profile to take on conducting duties as well, just as the composer would have done. Opening with a graceful, youthful exuberance, the chemistry of this long-time partnership paid its dividends with piano and orchestra seamlessly blended as a single organism. Uchida’s playing was elegant and stylistically idiosyncratic, and although her technique was occasionally fallible, she fared impressive in the cadenzas, adding appropriate heft where needed.

The slow movement was deeply lyrical, not quite to the degree of those in Mozart’s later concertos, but surely a sign of the direction the composer was headed. Uchida commanded a most spirited performance of the finale, wherein a fugal-like opening gave way to a movement replete with playful hand-crossings – as delightful now as they must have been to the Viennese public in Mozart’s day.

It’s quite astonishing to think that not even two decades separate these youthful ambitions from the masterful Piano Concerto no. 27 in B flat major. While Mozart couldn’t possibly have known this would be his final entry in the genre, the wistfulness with which it opened was so fitting for a valedictory work, and here too the composer made full use of the riches of an expanded orchestra. The gentle piano entrance was smoothed out with deft use of the pedal, and one was especially taken by the striking modulations of the development in this music of endless variety and color. The heavenly Larghetto marked the full blossoming of the songful potential hinted at in the analogous movement of the earlier concerto, and closing movement showed mastery of the rondo finale: a jocular main theme given dramatic flair in its minor key iterations, and complemented by a particularly fine woodwind section.

Serving as an interlude between the two concertos was Handel’s Water Music with concertmaster William Preucil at the helm, having already adeptly led the orchestra earlier this season. Five movements were culled from first two suites, forming a coherent arc in their own right. The overture opened with a stately severity that belied exultation that was to come, later featuring some lively interplay in the Allegro section. Oboist Frank Rosenwein delivered the rich melody of the Adagio e staccato like an aria, while the final two selections – closing with the famous Hornpipe – boasted the splendor of the gleaming brass.