Chamber Music in London

2006-04-16 / The Sunday Times / Paul Driver

Music: A time of gifts

Paul Driver celebrates with Mitsuko Uchida, Angela Hewitt and Richard Rodney Bennett

Two of our finest pianists, Mitsuko Uchida and Angela Hewitt, have been appearing as chamber musicians, Uchida in a programme at LSO St Lukes that included Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire; Hewitt at Queen Elizabeth Hall in three French masterpieces: Debussy’s Cello Sonata, Ravel’s Piano Trio and César Franck’s Piano Quintet. Uchida’s concert was part of a Barbican series honouring her, and it ended fittingly in that hall with a solo recital devoted to Mozart, the composer with whom she made her name. She gave us three sonatas and two shorter if hardly less weighty works, and played them, to put it bluntly, as though they were every bit as consequential as Beethoven. Still, there lurks the notion that each of Mozart’s 20 piano sonatas is, as the famous C major was dubbed, an “oeuvre facile”. None, of course, is easy to play well, and it was invigorating to be reminded of what big-boned, bold and searching statements they can be.

What Uchida does with them can only be described by cliché. She simply brings to bear all the pianistic parameters with supreme intelligence. Her shaping of rhythm, control of speed, sense of attack, her brilliant, wave-like use of dynamic shading, subtly attentive pedalling, and above all, her meticulous application of tone that is at one with insight into phrasing — these fundamentals of the art transform the sonatas seen as learning pieces into works of mastery and sublimity. It was marvellous to follow the drama of the linked C minor Fantasy, K475, and C minor Sonata, K457, a sort of “super sonata”. The desolate Adagio in B minor, an extraordinary work, left nothing to be said; though her first encore, a tiny, icy blast of Schoenberg, was a witty conversation piece.

Hewitt’s pianism was no less gripping, if necessarily unobtrusive. She contributed magically rapt, harmonic flourishes to the middle movement, Lento con molto sentimento, of the Franck: and, for me, such moments compensated for the oppressive ardour, blood-vessel-bursting sentimentality, of most of the rest of the opus. Not that Renaud and Gautier Capuçon, Jack Liebeck, and Antoine Tamestit bowed their big tunes with less than unimpeachable musicianship. With both brothers, Hewitt gave as passionate and precise an account of the Ravel as one could hope for; and with Gautier shared an animal quickness of response in the lithe, capricious Debussy sonata.

By way of contrast, there was the Barbican 70th birthday concert for Richard Rodney Bennett, given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus under Martyn Brabbins (the chorus conducted by Stephen Jackson). Bennett’s late-night cabaret had been cancelled, and the programme included none of his film music or jazz or crossover essays, so the focus was, refreshingly, on his serious concert work: four examples from the 1970s and 1980s. Symphony No 3 (1987) made a gently seductive opener. Rejecting the 12-tone orchestral bravura of his previous symphonies in favour of a small-orchestral and ultimately tonal reflectiveness, this three-movement structure impressed for its deft colour and the sheer fluency of its argument.

Bennett’s fluency, like his versatility, has often been held against him, but in these post-avant-garde days, it can perhaps be appreciated without qualm for the Mendelssohnian gift that it is. His formal mastery, like Mendelssohn’s, has a geniality that is moving in itself. And his wide expressive range is more than mere eclecticism. The 1977 horn concerto, Actaeon, was a dazzling instance of his athletic early style that gave continental modernism a British, distantly Waltonian flavour (David Pyatt a magnificent soloist). Sea-Change (1983) for a cappella chorus (plus tubular bells) was a new-fangled tumult in a native tradition harking back to Vaughan Williams and further; while Anniversaries (1982) for a large orchestra whose various sections are spotlighted in turn, had an irresistible gusto.