All is repertoire for which her pianism, renowned for its clarity, elegance, and grasp of musical structure, seems ideally suited. One therefore need not wonder what attracted Ms. Uchida to Maurice Ravel's Piano Concerto in G major (which she is playing with the New York Philharmonic from April 15 to 18, conducted by Riccardo Muti) : a bon-bon of a work drenched in jazz-age decadence and frothy French champagne. "I'm not a natural jazz player," she confesses. "I think that if I were to play Rhapsody in Blue it wouldn't sound quite right. I couldn't possibly do it in America. I'd play it too 'straight.'"
"It is both psychologically and physically different to play jazz when you are a classical performer. The nuts and bolts are in different places. I know who I am: If you offer me Beethoven or Gershwin, I know which one I'll choose. But the Ravel is a different situation."
The reference to Gershwin is apt. Ravel wrote this piece after hearing and admiring Gershwin's works; the connections are easy to hear. Yet the French composer never lost his individual cultural bearings, and the work is also filled with elements that reflect the European tradition. "The instrumentation reminds me of Mozart piano concertos, particularly the one in A major, K.488," says Ms. Uchida. "It has subtlety and depth. And the long, never-ending line in the slow movement is very Schubertesque."
Nevertheless, one finds far less gravity and cooler emotions here than in standard fare. "I would say there is often an emotional distance in Ravel," she admits. "But this piece goes deep down, especially in the slow movement. This is Ravel that goes beyond the merely beautiful; I find it one of the most emotionally involving of his pieces. And what is most interesting is the ever-changing sense of harmony. The colors shift all the time. And the music is rhythmically subtle; it demands a great deal of precision. That long, slow melody in the second movement, for example, is misleading in its simplicity : one step in the wrong direction, just as in Mozart, and you are lost."
Indeed, pianist Marguerite Long, who first performed this concerto, complained about that slow movement to Ravel. "One has no respite," she claimed. "I told Ravel one day how anxious I was, after all the fantasy and brilliant orchestration of the first part, to be able to maintain the cantabile [singing style] of the melody on the piano alone during such a long, slow, flowing phrase .... 'That flowing phrase!' Ravel cried. 'How I worked over it bar by bar! It nearly killed me!'"
Mitsuko Uchida doesn't find the length of the melody to be an issue. "The real problem," she explains, "is in the section where the English Horn solo goes on and on, and the pianist has to play the accompaniment. Every pianist who performs the Ravel Concerto will confess to you that it is hard not to lose your place in that section. This is something one should never say, of course, because then the audience will become aware of the difficulty and look for a mistake.
"But there are also other challenges: things I would love to be able to do in this work. I would like to be able to execute a glissando, for example, so that it sounds as if it were being played by a trumpet. If you can conjure that in the piano line, you have accomplished something!"
Clearly one of the key attractions for Mitsuko Uchida of her upcoming Philharmonic performances is the fact that she will be playing with Riccardo Muti. "I adore working with him," she says. "We played together in Salzburg for the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth, and I have been trying to get together with him again ever since. I can tell you that if you take the music seriously, he takes you seriously. He will go to any length to make great music with you. I'm so looking forward to this date." She feels equally excited about working with the Philharmonic. "This is an extremely brilliant orchestra," she observes. "It has more character than almost any other. Playing with the New York Philharmonic has always been a fun experience. I'm so happy to be back."
Performances continue at Avery Fisher Hall through April 18. For tickets and further program information, visit the New York Philharmonic.
Stuart Isacoff is the author of Temperament: How Music Became a Battleground for the Great Minds of Western Civilization (Knopf). He is on the faculty of Purchase College Conservatory of Music (SUNY).