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BSO/Uchida: Haunting and Resplendent


Mitsuko Uchida accepts ovation (Aram Boghosian photo)

This week’s BSO concerts with conductor Andris Nelsons offer two fifths: Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto, the Emperor, with the revered pianist Mitsuko Uchida and Shostakovich’s haunting and energetic 5th Symphony, known for its outward apologia, inner sarcasm, and unique references.

Uchida, widely and deservedly praised for her interpretation of this concerto, has recorded it a number of times with different maestros, including Seiji Ozawa, Sir Simon Rattle, and Kurt Sanderling. Wrapped in a diaphanous aquamarine blouse over black pants, she appeared lean and resplendent as a dragonfly poised to strike (dragonflies, known for their accuracy, kill their prey 97% of the time). Uchida captured both concerto and the audience, despite looking on guard at the start, perhaps chilly, wrapping her hands around her upper arms between passages. Her phrasing—incisive, expressive, and delighting —belied any possible discomfort.

Unusual for its time, a single E-flat orchestral chord announces the initial Allegro, allowing the pianist to enter with a flourishing cadenza followed by two more orchestral chords with pianistic embellishments after each. Uchida provided an intelligent approach from the get-go. Following the still refreshing introduction the sonata form dominates the movement, with march-like, even militaristic tone, despite melodic beauty. Uchida allowed each phrase to breathe, though the orchestra initially responded like cars in a traffic jam but became responsive and nuanced as the concerto progressed. Mid-movement, pianist and orchestra synched up, facilitating verve and sparkle.

In the Adagio un poco mosso Uchida gifted the audience with an expressive rendition of Beethoven’s lyrical B major theme, followed by the four variations. Muted strings and winds imparted a mystical conversation with the soloist. The second movement links directly to the third, led by a lone bassoon playing a B that drops to B flat and then zips into the outgoing Rondo: Allegro ma non troppo, with its ABACABA structure—a long, exuberant movement played here by both Uchida and the BSO with accurate, joyous romping. In sum, a resplendent performance, which delighted all.

The intermission served as a temporal palate cleanser in which many peered out at the glorious Friday afternoon; some 20% of the audience took off to enjoy it. Those who abandoned the hall really blew it. The Shostakovich 5th rewarded those who stayed with passion, excitement, and musical intrigue. The composer penned it as an evident apologia after Pravda issued harsh criticism of his Lady MacBeth of Mtsensk. Labeled by the composer as “A Soviet Artist’s Practical and Creative Response to Just Criticism,” the work appears contrite, yet is filled with hidden musical sarcasm. It is a treat to experience the orchestra’s romance with Dmitri S., as Nelsons and the orchestra are recording all 15 symphonies. The 5th, currently the most popular of Shostakovich’s symphonies, presents an apparently solid 4-movement symphonic build—not unlike the Beethoven’s Eroica, to which comparisons are often made—yet many savory innovations and hidden messages emerge.

The Moderato came across as it should be cast—apparently conventional, yet replete with schism, diving in with the exposition’s punctate, insistent rhythm in the strings and then with verve, delivering the work’s hidden quotations, among them from Mahler, “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” and the Internationale.

In the Allegretto, the delightful spoof on the waltz form emerged, as Nelsons painted the scene of dance and rivalries. The Largo presents a requiem, evocative of liturgical work heard in the Russian orthodox church, yet deceptive.  Here Nelsons imparted the intended quiet, somber mood translated through the violins at the start, and subsequently shifted to the winds, introduced by two flutes with dissonance, other winds and developed into occasional small aggressive burst of sound culminating with what seems either like lamentation or even accusation with clarinet, xylophone and piano and then, at the end, apparently compliantly prayerful, with the celeste.  Nelsons’s prowess as a conductor shone in the Allegro non troppo, which expands themes from earlier in the symphony, until the trumpet introduces a novel melody transferred to the strings.  The movement becomes more tranquil in its midsection, and then a funereal march with reprise of earlier melodies, passed from timpani to winds, and then strings emerges. The minor key of the movement ends in major, triumphantly.  After the last notes resounded throughout Symphony Hall, the audience stamped and cheered.

Hearing it again this week seems like a great idea. Many in the hall were saying just that, but this morning some outside ticket services were charging up to $672 per seat and Symphony Hall has few left.

Julie Ingelfinger studied piano at the Hartt School of Music, Aspen Music Festival and School and at Harvard. She enjoys her day jobs as professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, pediatric nephrologist at Mass General Hospital for Children and deputy editor at the New England Journal of Medicine.


5 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. The quality and intensity of the playing of the BSO on Thursday night’s concert reached an unsurpassable level that these ears have only rarely heard over the years. Indeed, the BSO sounded like the Berlin Philharmonic at its best during the glorious Karajan years, with a klang that unfortunately is long gone from Berlin. That klang re-appeared Thursday night in Boston however. What was absolutely incredible during the Shostakovich 5th Symphony was the balances the orchestra achieved, both loud and soft and everything in-between. They were playing with a unity that was spellbinding. Indeed, the performance of the Shostakovich may well have been Andris Nelsons’ finest moment in Boston that I’ve heard thus far. I was blown away by the performance, at every level. Kudos to the BSO, to Nelsons, and to all of them for making truly great music together. Wow!

    I may be premature in saying this, but I think we’re seeing right in front of our eyes real growth in Andris Nelsons’ already substantial musicianship. I’ve long believed that his “achilles heel” has been a tendency for his performances to interpretively live in the moment, unable to successfully convey the long line of more demanding works. It has minimized the success of his Bruckner, and negatively impacted his Mahler 6 from 2015, his Shostakovich 4 and 10, etc. What I heard last night was a really well-thought out interpretation which terraced the appropriate episodes in proportion and told a powerful and deeply moving story, and absolutely conveyed the long arc of the work. Nelsons hasn’t often done that, and if that’s his new norm, well, to these ears he will have taken it up to another level altogether. I’ve been a fan of his tenure in Boston, and it only seems to be getting better. We are so fortunate to have Andris Nelsons here.

    As for the Beethoven 5th Piano Concerto with Mitsuko Uchida, count me among the extreme minority of people who didn’t care for it. Uchida is a wonderful pianist, extremely sensitive and lyrical in her playing, and it’s generally a joy to hear her, especially in Mozart. But her performance of Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto was lyrical at the expense of the bigger picture of the work’s overall thrust. The performance never developed any momentum to these ears. While there were some episodes of lovely playing that really fit what was going on at the moment, in the big picture it felt like a disconnected collection of moments that never congealed. I thought it was unsuccessful. But she got a thunderous standing ovation from the audience.

    I think audiences in Japan are going to be blown away by what they hear on this tour. And I can’t wait for the BSO to return and continue giving us such outstanding performances as I heard Thursday night.

    Comment by Mogulmeister — October 29, 2022 at 4:20 pm

  2. Thanks for the interesting review. I’m looking forward to hearing the broadcast of the performance, especially the Shostakovich Fifth (which I’ve never heard compared with the Eroica!).

    Also, I wonder if the reviewer could point out where I can hear the two quotations she mentioned: Mahler, “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt,” and the Internationale. It’s always nice to learn something new about a composition that I thought I knew well.

    Comment by George Hungerford — October 29, 2022 at 6:21 pm

  3. Answers, or at least pointers, here:

    Comment by David Moran — October 29, 2022 at 9:28 pm

  4. Attended the Saturday night performance. This was the third time I have heard the BSO play Shostakovich V, twice with Nelson, once with soviet/Russian conductor Gennady Rozhdestvensky many decades ago. The two styles are strikingly different – Rozhdestvensky’s is much more rigid and precise, Nelson’s more raw emotion. I don’t know which is closer to the composer’s intentions; Rozhdestvensky first met Shostakovich in the 1950’s, Nelson was born long after his death. Composer’s intent notwithstanding, this may have been the single best BSO performance I have heard in 30 years attendance.

    Comment by Tom — November 1, 2022 at 11:12 am

  5. I agree with Mogulmeister re the Beethoven. Uchida, as great as she is, never seemed in total command of the performance. I am always unhappy when my own personal assessment seems so much at odds with everyone else, so thank you for posting.

    Comment by Dinah K Bodkin — November 7, 2022 at 4:37 pm

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