Schumann’s Piano Concerto, a merger from two periods of composition by the mid-19th century German, is somehow greatly loved and seen as some sort of odd duck by both piano and orchestra enthusiasts.
Schumann unveiled the work in 1841 as a fantasy for his virtuoso young bride, Clara Wieck, and rounded it out with two more movements, dubbing it four years later the A minor Concerto, his Op. 54, again with Wieck as soloist. Perhaps because of its mash-up creation, perhaps because Schumann ignored the traditional “rules” of just what constituted a concerto, it’s become almost automatic to say of a pianist, “although you don’t associate her/him with the Schumann.”
And yet just about every great pianist of whatever stripe or style does play it, and each tends to illuminate another aspect of this half-hour work which is much more than an unusual marriage between constant beauty and ramshackle construction.
Thursday night, pianist Mitsuko Uchida was Muti’s latest partner for the first of three CSO performances at Orchestra Hall. Uchida, associated more with Schumann’s solo piano works than the concerto, used her deep knowledge and empathy of those similarly delicate but wild pieces as her entry, literally and figuratively, into the concerto. For the lengthy opening Allegro movement, marked “affettuoso” (with great affection), Uchida showed us a pair of grand fantasy lines that she braided together and unbraided, almost as in a trance. It was as if she was floating above the orchestra and Muti provided an elegant dark sea upon which to do so. The accompaniment for this piece often seems more like punctuation, and Muti knew that meant semicolons, not wispy commas or overly emphatic periods.
The connecting andantino Intermezzo, marked “grazioso,” and vibrant closing allegro (“vivace”) brought more of this keyboard blend of delicacy and vigor, deep thought and reverie, that perhaps only Uchida, now 65, and the younger Norwegian Leif Ove Andsnes of today’s artists, recognize in this piece. Audience and orchestra called her back for a rare and deserved four curtain calls. (Although she has cut her hair to near shoulder-length, she still does her full-bend yoga bows.)
Schumann was also a famously generous and perceptive supporter of other composers both younger and living, and in 1837 discovered the manuscript of a giant Schubert symphony, never played or even read, composed from 1825 to 1828, the year of Schubert’s death. This “Great” C Major work, which Schumann arranged to be premiered in 1839 in Leipzig conducted by Felix Mendelssohn, became known as the Symphony No. 9, D. 944, the composer’s last and one of his most beloved and admired.
Muti had conducted the “Great” C Major just two years ago here and on the CSO’s California tour, but it was a logical and welcome repeat as part of this season’s Muti survey of all the substantially finished Schubert symphonies. As with the last time, Muti found the inner, never forced propulsion of the piece, but this time seemed to encourage a freer sound, no less beautiful than the more controlled 2012 take. As with last time, too, he had the captivating solos of oboe Eugene Izotov, and also principal clarinet Steven Williamson, who had been on leave with the New York Philharmonic this season, back in his chair. His return is most welcome.