In 2015, the elite players of the Mahler Chamber Orchestra set the bar high in a much-lauded Beethoven concerto project, with Leif Ove Andsnes directing from the keyboard. A similar combination of the MCO and Mitsuko Uchida promised Mozart concertos of equally high distinction and in this outstanding concert they were, if anything, even better.
Few pianists are better exponents of the modern style in Mozart than Uchida, with her constantly alert phrasing and crystalline touch, while the responsiveness of the MCO, playing on mainly modern instruments but in a historically informed manner, was never less than absorbing. With her back to the audience, and directing the orchestra as though she was playing some enormous piano, Uchida had the woodwinds in her direct line of sight in Mozart’s G major Concerto K453 and the more grandly conceived and orchestrated C major K503. The rewards were fabulous, as Uchida combined with Chiara Tonelli’s flute, Mizuho Yoshii-Smith’s oboe and Fredrik Ekdahl’s bassoon so compellingly that the surrounding string playing felt at times almost incidental.
Yet the strings more than came into their own in Bartók’s Divertimento, which separated the two concertos. Without a conductor, and with the violins and violas playing standing up, the orchestra inhabited Bartók’s energised score to such a degree that it seemed at times as if the players were about to break into a Hungarian folk dance. As in the Mozart, the concertante nature of the writing drew the spotlight on to a fine inner group of principals, led in this case by Matthew Truscott’s sinuous first violin. But the truth is that this is one of those orchestras in which all are stars.