Monday, April 18, 2016

A few days in Paris: Rattle’s Bruckner and a Mitsuko Uchida recital (April 2016)

Spending a few days in Paris in the second week of April allowed me to marvel at the wealth and accessibility of the city’s musical life. On Tuesday April 12 I was able to get a same-day ticket in the afternoon for Simon Rattle conducting Bruckner’s Eighth and Messiaen’s Couleurs de la Cité Celeste at the Philharmonie. On Wednesday I could have attended a piano recital by Yundi. Friday offered a recital by Stephen Kovacevich. Another possibility was an all-Rachmanimoff program with Vladimir Ashkenazy conducting the Philharmonia and Boris Berezovsky at the piano. Sadly I had to miss all of these, despite decent ticket availability (albeit in the higher price brackets) and was only able to rejoin the fray on Saturday night for Mitsuko Uchida’s recital at the Théatre des Champs Elyssées. What an extraordinary range of opportunities for a five-night window! And of course there was much, much else on offer.

Simon Rattle is already developing a strong rapport with the London Symphony Orchestra, although his contract with the Berlin Philharmonic does not expire until 2018. Both the Messiaen and the Bruckner were performed with assurance and precision. The juxtaposition is interesting. The most obvious resemblance between the two composers is, of course, their deep religious faith (much more intellectualized in Messiaen’s case than in Bruckner’s). But from a musical point of view there are more interesting structural parallels and differences. They both compose in blocks of sound. Messiaen’s blocks are static, however, whereas Bruckner’s are much more dynamic. I found that this element of contrast made the start of the Bruckner symphony particularly effective, as did the contrast between Bruckner’s prodigious string sections and Messiaen’s scoring exclusively for wind, piano, and the largest percussion section I’ve seen for a long time.

Messiaen’s Couleurs de la Cité Celeste requires very precise conducting, to allow the piece’s articulation and timbres to emerge against its complex rhythms. Rattle and the LSO were clearly very comfortable with the musical idiom, as of course was pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard (who won the Olivier Messiaen prize in 1973 and is a dedicated exponent of contemporary music). Orchestra and conductor then switched styles effortlessly (after a short interval) and delivered a very memorable performance of Bruckner’s Eighth. Bruckner is not the first composer that comes to mind where Rattle is concerned and I must admit to having been underwhelmed by his Ninth (not least because of his insistence on conducting the reconstructed finale). But here he and the LSO were terrific, combining chamber-like phrasing with full-on sturm und drang. The pacing was well-judged, consistent across the four movements and doing justice both to the depth of the slow movement and the powerful momentum of the outer movements. My only complaint was an occasional loss of articulation as elements of the musical fabric were drowned out in some of the climaxes (most noticeably the principal climax in the slow movement).

At the Théatre des Champs Elyssées a few days later Mitsuko Uchida offered a program that has seen many outings – the Berg piano sonata, Schubert’s D899 Impromptus, Mozart’s Rondo K.511, and Schumann’s Piano Sonata No. 1. Each piece played to a different strength. Her fineness of phrasing and delicacy were on display in the Berg and the Mozart, particularly effectively in the Berg where she brought out the subtlety of the harmonies. Uchida is very closely identified with the Schubert Impromptus and the D899 set were well performed, albeit without the full expressive range on display in her recordings of the set. The lyricism of No. 3 emerged very clearly, but there was room for more drama in No. 1 (although I may be prejudiced from having recently reviewed Sokolov’s monumental live recording from Warsaw).

The Schumann, in contrast, was outstanding, with Uchida bringing out beautifully the piece’s many different aspects and personalities – from the storminess of the first movement through the short but super-lyrical Aria and jagged Scherzo/Intermezzo to the concluding Rondo where  Schumann’s two alter egos (the reflective Florestan and the ebullient Eusebius) chase and wrestle with each other.  A spell-binding performance.

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