Mitsuko Uchida; photo by Jean Radel

In a post yesterday, I spoke of a concert by the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall. That was the first evening of a three-concert stand. Today, I will speak of the second evening, Saturday night. I will not speak of the third concert, because I did not attend. So, mine will be a two-review stand, so to speak.

On Saturday night, as throughout the series, the BRSO was conducted by its chief, Mariss Jansons. There were two works on the program: Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. The first of these is one of the greatest piano concertos we have; the second is one of the greatest symphonies we have. In fact, these are two of the greatest pieces of music, period.

If you’re going to do familiar repertoire, let it be great.

The soloist in the Beethoven was Mitsuko Uchida, the veteran Japanese-born pianist. She was at her very best: tasteful, exquisite, refined—all those words we always apply to Uchida. In fact, the best word of all is “Uchida-esque.” Rubato is often a matter of taste, of course, and Uchida’s was sometimes not to mine. There were little hesitations that did not strike me as musical or natural. But Uchida is justly famous as a tasteful player.

There was an overall problem, however: This Concerto No. 4 was rather small and thin. Haydnesque, you might say. There were times when more richness or fatness was called for, and that, this pianist could not provide.

Jansons conducted sensitively and beautifully, on the whole. I winced in the middle movement, however: Jansons had the orchestra’s statements choppy, bouncy, and periody. Et tu, Mariss? Have you thrown in the towel and joined the crowd?

The audience loved Uchida, as well it should have, and she sat down to play an encore—a movement from Bach’s French Suite in G. That is one of the best types of encore: a small item by Bach in the same key as the big piece just played.

When she began, Uchida used some ornamentation that was unusual and effective. I actually wrote on my program, “Wow.” But, as she continued, Uchida increased her ornamentation, making it more and more elaborate. The piece was not so much the piece as a carnival of ornamentation. The music, I believe, got lost.

But, man, can she play beautifully.

Earlier in the day, I was talking to a friend about the concert. I said that the Shostakovich Fifth from Jansons ought to be great—with this caveat: “Background” is not musical destiny, just as it’s not other kinds of destiny.

As I have mentioned before in these pages—tree-based and electronic—Jansons was born in Riga in 1943. That was not a propitious time or place in which to be born. His mother was in hiding, her father and brother having already been killed by the Gestapo. When he was growing up, of course, Jansons dealt with the Communists.

He studied in Leningrad. He served under Yevgeny Mravinsky at the Leningrad Philharmonic (as his conductor-father before him had). Etc., etc.

In other words, Jansons is perfect for the Shostakovich Fifth—for understanding the horrific pressure under which it was written. For understanding everything about it. And yet, background is not destiny.

We could all give a hundred examples, but let me choose one: I love the way Heidi Grant Murphy sings spirituals. I would rather hear this white chick from Washington State in them than many a soprano who grew up black and poor in the South. (HGM is a minister’s daughter, which may help.)

Well, the Shostakovich Fifth from Jansons? It was fine. It was good. Jansons can do much, much better. The finale was the least successful of the movements, in my opinion. Its tempos were screwy and the music did not have its emotional impact—at least on me. Tonight, Jansons could be devastating in this music, if he mounted a podium to conduct it. That’s musical life.

And Jansons has a humanity in him—I’m tempted to say a morality—that shines through no matter what.

On Saturday night, he conducted an encore: an interlude from the Shostakovich opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District. It was a lot of fun, having, among other qualities, fascinatin’ rhythm, as a Gershwin brother or two might say.

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