The Saul Seminars – Mitsuko Uchida

Written by: Ying Chang

Mitsuko Uchida is not only one of the world’s finest pianists; she is also a compelling speaker. It is widely known that her vivacity and enthusiasm infects her lectures; she is always assured of a good audience even when there is no piano on stage. In this lecture she made us aware that even someone who sets out their stall entirely as a performer, and makes no claims to being an academic, undertakes the study of the score and all its sources with the most painstaking care.

After its much-publicised teething troubles, the strengths of The British Library have become more and more apparent and one now feels for the great Museum reading-room the nostalgia one associates with clipper ships and dinosaurs.But the new library is not only the repository of the nation’s books – the National Sound Archive, with over a million discs of one kind and another, lives here too. Uchida’s lecture was an excellent combination of the theoretical issues involved in transferring the score into performance and the practical illustration of such translation, using recordings owned by the Sound Archive.

In the first part, Uchida took the audience through the stages by which a composition finds its way to the printed page, and alerted us to how errors could arise at each stage. The only truly authentic performance is that of the composer performing his own work. Oh to have been a fly on the wall in Mozart or Schubert’s composing room. A composer often makes errors simply writing his music down – Uchida referred to the “telephone syndrome” that Schubert in particular suffered from – the composer is disturbed and returns to his fluent composition in the wrong place. Mozart composed horizontally, and at great speed. At times, such as the slow movement of the C minor piano concerto (K491), he has transcribed incorrectly a passage from his head onto the paper. This means, paradoxically, that Urtext is not always best. For Schubert, Uchida recommends the Howard Ferguson (Associated Board) edition as the best, above all because the editor has made attempts to tackle this issue of “writing mistakes.”

Now pity the poor copyist. Beethoven was often irritated by his helpers, yet it was his own handwriting that was legendarily illegible. Uchida was given, to her delight, a facsimile of Beethoven’s ultimate sonata (Op.111). On looking inside at random, it took her half-a-minute to realise that she was holding the score upside-down. Publishers make further errors, most notably printing notes on the wrong line. Schoenberg’s piano works, for example, require myriad corrections. And then editors interfere (surely not! – Editor). Uchida reminded us of one of the most notorious mistakes in the whole piano literature. Chopin’s B flat minor sonata, distinguished by the ’Funeral March’, begins with bars marked ’Grave” before ’doppio movimento’. For years, Uchida was practically the only performer to play these bars again in the exposition repeat and she was much criticised. Her interpretation was as a result of close study of the sources. Time, and better scholarship, have proved her absolutely right.

In the second part of her lecture, Uchida played illustrations of how performers have made the score come to life – Casals and Anner Bylsma in Bach’s Third Cello Suite, Furtwangler and Leibowitz in Beethoven’s Fifth. In each case, a very “personal” and a very “scholarly” interpretation, the wayward and the rigorous, yet both are valid. It was Bylsma, Uchida’s friend, who said of Casals, “He makes every note his own,” while of Furtwangler Uchida said “He had such far-sighted vision. I can never approach from how far away he can see things”. Finally, we heard the slow movement of Mozart’s sonata K481, first with Grumiaux and Klein – examples of “modern beauty” – and, then, the infinitely slower, more expressive, older-fashioned Szigeti and Schnabel. Szigeti is a particular favourite of Uchida’s.

In a sense, then, the two parts of Uchida’s talk were contrasts – in the first she told us that scholarship can never be painstaking enough; in the second, that in the end it is the soul of the performer which carries out the true communication with the audience – the performer makes what is a best guess at how the music should live.

The archival nature of these seminars precluded the possibility of Uchida illustrating her words with her own playing, as she so memorably did during the Chopin study day held on the South Bank to commemorate his 150th-anniversary. At the close, Uchida summarised her lecture in a sentence – there were really only two things she ever wanted to say to the composer when she played: “thank you” for writing the piece and “sorry” if she had misinterpreted his intention.

  • The next in this series of seminars takes place on Tuesday 23 April at 6.15p.m. – “The Performing Artist in the Recording Studio”. The speaker will be Susan Tomes, best known for her work as the pianist of the chamber ensembles Domus and the Florestan Trio. Tickets, which are free and include refreshments, should be obtained from the boxoffice@bl.uk Box office (020 7412 7332) www.bl.uk
  • This series is under the aegis of the National Sound Archive and is the responsibility of the “Curator of Western Art Music”, Timothy Day (tim.day@bl.uk)

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