Mitsuko Uchida’s slightly-under-the-radar cycle of Beethoven Piano Concertos with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra and the artless Kurt Sanderling (Philips/Decca) is one of my favorites for its almost self-effacing musicality and the orchestral precision that translates into lightness without sacrificing oomph. On Classicstoday.com Jed Distler praised the “Emperor” as ranking “with Schnabel, Solomon, Kempff, Arrau, Fleisher, and Gieseking among [the] finest recorded versions.” Naturally, Uchida’s new cycle elicited my interest.
The Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle (closer to the BRSO in style and precision now than ever) are her partners; the label is the orchestra’s own. If you’ve heard about the wildly inconvenient coffee-table-book packaging of their CD + Blu-ray exercises in vaingloriousness, worry not: Like most releases, it got reissued as a Hybrid-SACD set in collector-friendly size.
Excellently recorded, genial, and low octane, it falls in line with other sets that have been positively reviewed in these pages. In fact, I could quote wholesale a whole paragraph Distler wrote about Buchbinder’s Vienna Philharmonic cycle on Sony and it would apply very neatly: “While the expressive yet lean string sonorities and clearly audible wind and brass work suggest a modicum of period-performance influence, the generally conservative tempos (nothing too fast, nothing too slow), freedom from mannerisms or eccentricities, and genial melodic inflection from all participants place interpretations in line with other like-minded, centrist Beethoven cycles (Ashkenazy/Cleveland, Pollini/Böhm/Jochum, … Lewis/ Bělohlávek, Uchida/Sanderling).” Add to that list Richard Goode’s with Iván Fischer (Nonesuch) and Mari Kodama/Nagano (Berlin Classics).
Uchida tends to be a little more relaxed compared to Buchbinder, and a smidgen more indulgent in the slow movements, but also more playful in individual phrases (such as the long runs in the first movement of the C major concerto). But it doesn’t capture the glow of the Sanderling set, which sounds autumnal where Rattle & Co. can sound slightly tepid. The performances will undoubtedly please–the concertos are too good, and there’s no Rattle-tedium on display–but, for better or worse, they have nothing new to say nor are they trying hard to find a new twist on these classics. In doing so, they don’t replace cherished classics and they don’t challenge more individualistic or poignantly modern interpretations. Instead, it’s classy comfort food.
That contrasts with Berezovsky/Dausgaard, for example, who tick all the boxes for transparency and whose concertos (with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra on Simax, not yet issued as a set) are more pointedly of 21st-century vintage: a leaner, snap-and-sparkle modern version of Szell/Fleisher in many ways.
Distler misses the lack of warmth and color in Pollini’s remake of the concertos with the Berlin Philharmonic under Abbado, but if you like his granitic Chopin as much as I do, the angular, unsentimental clarity of his later Beethoven, sounding surprisingly classical-periodish (without even trying, HIP-wise), can do a lot for you. Uchida/Rattle’s focus is softer. And because my tastes also run to the perverse, I quite love the wilful Pletnev set (going right where his symphony-set goes wrong) as the perfect foil to all the well-behaved sets mentioned above. None of this need be feared here.
The set’s presentation would be excellent and informative but the English texts are printed in such a fancy light gray, you can hardly make out the writing.