Pianist Mitsuko Uchida delivered a sparkling Mozart Piano Concerto No. 20 in D Minor (K.466) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Andris Nelsons on Thursday, the eve of Easter weekend, to an enthusiastic full house at Symphony Hall. Uchida was the clear favorite of the program which also featured Anton Bruckner’s rather heavy Symphony No. 6 in A. It was a pairing of opposites.
Elegantly dressed in a gauzy golden cape, dark trousers and gold lame heels, Uchida reacted to her copious adulation with grace and modesty. Her playing was impeccable by any standard, highlighted with perfect trills, dizzying runs and precise Mozartean rhythms and dynamics. Program notes by Michael Steinberg noted the concerto’s “witty and serious play of conversation”. She understood that and blended her pianism with the orchestral parts, never striving to dominate. The concerto is an integral part of her highly-regarded Mozart repertoire; she often conducts from the keyboard, and even in this concert gestured out of habit to the players a few times.
The most exciting passages of her interpretation were the Beethoven cadenzas, which provided a rich and dramatic contrast to the relatively spare Mozart writing. Beethoven admired the concerto and played it regularly in Vienna. He wrote the two cadenzas from the heart, and they remain the most frequently performed of all those available to performers today.
The concerto is a staple at Symphony Hall, having been performed here previously by an A-list of piano masters: Myra Hess, Murray Perahia, Andras Schiff, Emanuel Ax, Alfred Brendel, Radu Lupu and Alicia de Larrocha, among others.
Bruckner’s Sixth, known as the “ugly duckling” of his 11, offered an occasion for Bruckner-doubters to revisit his oeuvre. The performance benefited from Nelsons’s attentions. He threw himself into the vague, romantic orchestral colorings, putting down his baton at one point to better shape the forward movement with his flowing arms and hands. One hour later, he had achieved a measure of coherence to this challenging work.
The opening movement, punctuated by blasts from the BSO’s impressive brass, is labeled “maestoso” and indeed it is magisterial. Some have compared it to the voice of God. The striking contrasts of brass and strings continue in the adagio, a sehr feierlich (very solemnly) movement that unites three themes constructed in sonata form. The scherzo is marked Nicht schnell (not fast) but Nelsons plunged into it with brio. I found it the most appealing movement. Thomas May’s note rightly points out the “shadowy elfin touches in the winds … (that) collide against the juggernaut of the full orchestra tutti.” The brief trio movement is easy on the ears, with an extra bounce from pizzicato passages and beautiful trio of horns. More blasts from the brass punctuate the finale and brings the symphony to what May called a “joyous end”.
The Sixth had a difficult birth, and the self-deprecating composer, largely rejected by contemporaries, heard only two of the four movements at a concert in 1881, two years after finishing the score. Three years after Bruckner’s 1896 death, Gustav Mahler conducted a sharply cut “complete” version.. Erich Leinsdorf brought the authentic full version finally arrived here in 1969.