Edinburgh Festival 2017: Mitsuko Uchida plays Mozart, Schumann, and Widmann

There are performances that are so transfixing that to review them seems churlish. If the performer succeeds in transporting you, there’s little else to do but put your pen down and submit.

Mitsuko Uchida is one of a handful of musicians who has achieved that for me and, save for the occasional choking, coughing, and general spluttering, for most others in the Usher Hall too.

Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major K545

Uchida’s jaw-dropping technical mastery brought the playful innocence and joyful naivety in Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major K545 to the fore. In a matter of moments it felt as though everyone in the hall was hanging off every note she played. A remarkable achievement.

Robert Schumann’s Kreisleriana

She continued to demonstrate her masterful control of the piano in Schumann’s eight-movement homage to author ETA Hoffmann.

In this work in particular we didn’t just marvel at the sound Uchida produces, but the relationship she forms with every single note the piano sounds. Each one is given its moment before she has to part company with it and move on to the next.

Here too she created epic drama with dazzling dynamic, tonal, and textural contrast.

Robert Widmann’s Sonatina facile

Premiered in Hamburg in January 2017, Jorg Widmann’s Sonatina facile paid homage to the Mozart piano sonata we heard in the first half. Widmann’s harmonic language has a wilfulness and playfulness, that part-ridicules, part-celebrates.

There are moments in the work when the harmonic language not only honours the original creation, but highlights the absurdities and contradictions of modern-day life too. A fun and entertaining piece. Loved it.

Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C Major Op. 17

Uchida concluded her recital with a performance of Schumann’s C Major Fantasy that tantalised. Heartbreaking slow movements, contrasted with fiery dexterity, and deft pedal work. A performance that brought tears to the eyes.

Emma Dunch is the new chief executive for Sydney Symphony Orchestra

It pains me to link to a blog post on Slipped Disc, but I will. There aren’t enough women running orchestras in the UK. That amazes me. I think it needs to change.

And that helps explain why the news that Emma Dunch is the new chief executive for Sydney Symphony Orchestra is so refreshing. If it can happen there, then maybe it can happen more here.

It’s not all good news though. I bite my lip when I read this in the Sydney Herald:

As with all orchestral music, bringing down the average age in the concert hall is also a prime focus.

“It’s about meeting millennials and Gen Y audiences where they are instead of maybe where their parents were,” she says.

Most of the UK’s orchestras are run by men. That amazes me. I think it needs to change.

Pro-tip, Emma. Don’t call them ‘millennials’. They hate that.

BBC Proms 2017/40: Brahms Tragic Overture / Berg Violin Concerto / Schumann 3 / Scottish Chamber Orchestra / Tetzlaff / Ticciati

Figured I’d take the relatively unusual step of just writing out my notes from last night’s concert, which was utterly brilliant. An easy five stars. Loved it.

Brahms Tragic Overture

Ticciati’s conducting style is efficient. He’s engaged with a seductively smooth technique. Precise when it needs to be.

The scaled down forces of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra mean the band is able to respond to that direction with greater dynamic range. When that’s combined with the delicacy and precision of Brahms’ articulation, the effect is electrifying. It is as though we’re hanging off their every note.

There were some shaky entries from the second violins and horns in places. The balance favoured the bass instruments (which resonated well in the hall), but that also meant I wanted the upper strings to be a little ‘fuller’ in sound in the fortissimos.

That’s reflected in the radio broadcast too – although the resulting ‘rawness’ in sound creates a deliciously visceral sound I rather like in music by Brahms.

Berg Violin Concerto

I adore the mysteriousness of Berg’s Violin Concerto. Studied at A-Level (well, an extract) and found it intimidating, impenetrable, and irritatingly self-important. It was something I needed to understand, but a work the composer didn’t seem to want make very understandable.

Now I hear it and it sounds like a journey into the future. Given that it was written in 1935 makes the sound-world Berg creates (one you’d think we’re all mostly vaguely familiar with by now, 80 years on) still fresh and modern.

During the first movement there are moments when it feels as though we’re wandering through a museum of musical sketches – vague half-forgotten memories emerge and disappear again. An incredibly powerful experience.

The second movement conveys a mild sense of peril (or at the very least, tension). The violin line seems both vulnerable and defiant: a delicate voice that is sure of itself, but way of the world it’s occupying all at the same time.

Tetzlaff plays with panache, adopting a demonstrative style through – necessary for this work – occupying the different character Berg scores for the solo violin.

The SCO plays with an enviable relish. There is passion in their attention to detail, and an infectious self-belief too.

Come the end of the work – the exquisite final chords are to die for – there is a remarkable sense of unity. There’s a palpable sense of resolution, or maybe just resignation?

Thomas Larcher – Nocturne Insomnia

Riveting. Resourceful. Rich. Entertaining. Fun.

Evocative scene-setting. Held my attention throughout. Loved it.

Schumann Symphony No. 3 ‘Rhenish’

A youthful expression of unbridled joy opens the first movement.

Some ensemble issues between the wind and strings in the opening section. Do the wind get ahead or the strings? I can’t quite work it out.

The responsive dynamic contrasts we heard in the Brahms are here again. Ticciati makes the band work hard. The movement has a captivating elegance about it. Ticciati is an incredibly exciting conductor to watch. He creates something really quite life-affirming.

Echoes of Tchaikovsky in the second movement in the main subject played in the wind – silky smooth legato. Effortless pastoral feel.

There is a delicacy to the third movement which is quite remarkable. The bass notes – especially at the end of the phrases – resonate in the hall. There is precision and poise in the playing.

The string players in particular let the acoustic of the hall do the hard work. Not heard many orchestras who make light work of playing in what I’ve always understood to be quite a shitty acoustic.

The darker, subdued fourth movement opens with a gorgeous chorale played by the horns. Rich, warm, and enticing, pulling us into what feels like a more ambiguous musical idea. Orchestration makes me think of Stokowski for some reason.

The concluding fifth movement is sprightly, joyous, and energetic.

Gramophone Awards Shortlist Announced

Gramophone have announced the top three recordings in the 12 main categories for its annual Gramophone Classical Music Awards.

Brace brace. The competition and the awards ceremony are a little challenging to comprehend, making the Eurovision semi-finals, the Big Five and the question around why Israel and now Australia are in the Song Contest a GCSE multiple-choice question in comparison.

So, here’s a primer.

Gramophone Awards Primer

The list below isn’t the full shortlist – you’ll find that in the September issue of Gramophone.

Listed below are the top three from each category.

The category winners will be announced on 1 September, three of which will be in the running for the Recording of the Year award revealed at the big glitzy event (where I imagine there will be canapes and fizz) on 13 September.

No need to worry if you don’t get an invite to the event. It’s being streamed live on Medici.TV. Marvellous.

Adès, Trifonov and Lucretia on the list

Pleased to see Thomas Adès LSO recording on the list. So too, Daniil Trifonov playing Lizst’s terrifying Trascendental Etudes I first heard in Verbier 2015.

It seems incredible to me that someone I used to book to play rank and file in the cellos 20 years ago, is now featuring in a Gramophone award – Jonathan Cohen’s well-deserved rise to prominence continues.

Good as well to see that Glyndebourne’s Lucretia (below), available on DVD, is on the list too.

Baroque Instrumental

Florilegium: Telemann: Ihr Völker hört. Concertos (Channel Classics)
Gli Incogniti / Giuliano Carmignola / Amandine Beyer: Vivaldi: Concerti per due violini (Harmonia Mundi)
La Serenissima / Adrian Chandler: ‘The Italian Job’ (Avie)

Baroque Vocal sponsored by Mrs Joan Jones

Iestyn Davies; Arcangelo / Jonathan Cohen: Bach: Cantatas Nos 54, 82 & 170 (Hyperion)
Les Arts Florissants / Paul Agnew: Monteverdi: Madrigals, Vol 3: Venezia (Harmonia Mundi)
Sir John Eliot Gardiner / Monteverdi Choir; EBS: Bach: St Matthew Passion (SDG)

Chamber sponsored by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute

Danish Quartet: Abrahamsen, Adès, Norgård: String Quartets (ECM)
The Nash Ensemble: Bruch: String Octet. String Quintets (Hyperion)
Silesian Quartet: Bacewicz: Complete String Quartets (Chandos)

Choral sponsored by IDAGIO
Paul McCreesh / Gabrieli Consort & Players: Haydn: The Seasons (Signum)
Hervé Niquet / Le Concert Spirituel: Cherubini, Plantade: Requiems (Alpha)
Masaaki Suzuki / Bach Collegium: Mozart: Mass in C minor (BIS)


Lisa Batiashvili; Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim: Sibelius/Tchaikovsky: Violin Concertos (DG)
Danny Driver; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra / Rebecca Miller: Beach, Chaminade, Howells: Piano Concertos (Hyperion)
Isabelle Faust; Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini: Mozart: Violin Concertos Nos 1-5 (Harmonia Mundi)

Contemporary sponsored by Naim Audio

London Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Adès: Adès: Orchestral Works (LSO Live)
Pierre-Laurent Aimard; Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra / George Benjamin: Benjamin, Ligeti, Murail: Orchestral Works (Neos)
Renaud Capuçon / Various: Dusapin, Mantovani, Rihm: Works for Violin and Orchestra (Erato)

Early Music

The Binchois Consort: ‘Music for the 100 Years War’ (Hyperion)
Cut Circle / Jesse Rodin: Dufay: Les messes à teneur (Musique en Wallonie)
Phantasm: Dowland: Lachrimae or Seven Tears (Linn)


Murray Perahia: Bach: French Suites (DG)
Beatrice Rana: Bach: Goldberg Variations (Warner Classics)
Daniil Trifonov: Liszt: ‘Transcendental’: Etudes d’éxécution transcendante (DG)

Opera sponsored by E. Gutzwiller & Cie, Banquiers

Glyndebourne / Leo Hussain: Britten: Rape of Lucretia (DVD) (Opus Arte)
Hochschule für Musik, Freiburg / François Bollon: Goldmark: Die Königin von Saba (CPO)
Zurich Opera / Fabio Luisi: Berg: Wozzeck (DVD) (Accentus)

Orchestral sponsored by the European Foundation for Support of Culture

Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini: Haydn: Symphonies Nos 12, 60, 70 (Alpha)
Minnesota Orchestra / Osmo Vänskä: Sibelius: Symphonies Nos 3, 6 & 7 (BIS)
Seattle Symphony Orchestra / Thomas Dausgaard: Mahler/Cooke: Symphony No 10 (Seattle SO)

Recital sponsored by Primephonic

Joyce DiDonato with Il Pomo d’Oro / Maxim Emelyanychev: ‘In War and Peace’ (Erato)
Anett Fritsch with Munich Rundfunk / Alessandro de Marchi: Mozart: Arias (Orfeo)
Anna Prohaska with Il Giardino Armonico / Giovanni Antonini: ‘Serpent and Fire’ (Alpha)

Solo Vocal

Benjamin Appl & James Bailieu: Heimat (Sony Classical)
Florian Boesch & Roger Vignoles: Krenek: Reisebuch aus den österrichischen Alpen (Hyperion)
Matthias Goerne & Christoph Eschenbach: Brahms: Vier ernste Gesänge; Songs Op 32 (Harmonia Mundi)

BBC Proms 2017/30: Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast / National Youth Choirs of Great Britain / Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra / Kirill Karabits

I risk going against the grain with this post.

The National Youth Choirs of Great Britain’s Prom featuring William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast was not one I especially enjoyed.

In fact, I’d go a little further. I don’t hear what everyone else appears to have heard when I listen to it back via iPlayer Radio. And I’ve listened to it three times today. I even roped in my other half to act as a ‘control’ listener.

Belshazzar’s Feast suffered from quite remarkable intonation in the sopranos.

In some places the voices were unsupported, meaning that the top notes often came in a little flat. Once or twice is forgivable, but when it happens consistently, I begin to wonder whether the programme was a little ambitious.

Additionally, some sections of the orchestral accompaniment got off to a rocky start. There were also moments when it felt like the orchestra itself was struggling to keep together.

I don’t deny anyone the excitement of their experience performing it at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s my hunch that Belshazzar’s was under-rehearsed. Maybe that was down to the inclusion of a lesser-known work by Prokofiev which, presumably, made demands on rehearsal time.