Florian Uhlig Recital – 18 October

Beethoven
Sonata No.32 in C minor, Op.111
Brahms
Sonata No.1 in C, Op.1
Mackenzie
Fantasia, Op.70
Stevens
Fantasia on “Giles Farnaby’s Dreame”, Op.22

Florian Uhlig (piano)


Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 18 October, 2002
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

An evening with much of the beautiful and much less of the sublime. Florian Uhlig’s dense, demanding programme included the first of Brahms’s sonatas and the last of Beethoven’s, which were hardly leavened by two fantasias (which opened each half), one half-Brahmsian, half-Russianate by Alexander Campbell Mackenzie (1847-1935), the other a meditation on the Elizabethan Giles Farnaby by Bernard Stevens (1916-1983).

Uhlig’s greatest virtues are his affection for detail and his ability to play perfectly weighted chords in singing tone. His main defect is a relentless high seriousness that gave his recital an unsmiling face. Thus, the lyrical second subject in Brahms’s first movement had a haunting, seamless beauty, but the ’Scherzo’ was earthbound. Nor did either fantasia escape his close control to be flights of fancy.

Beethoven’s final sonata closed Uhlig’s recital – the acid test. He took a resolutely anti-heroic approach to the first movement, a careful introduction preceding an understated, almost apologetic ’Allegro con brio ed appassionato’, and put matter-of-fact simplicity above intensity at the start of the ’Arietta and Variations’. Only towards the end did Uhlig prove equal to the challenge of one of the greatest works in the piano repertoire, combining structure, melodic shape and bell-like tone in a profoundly satisfying peroration.

While no encore would have been best, Uhlig continued with the grotesque misjudgement of not just playing Beethoven’s trifling variations on “God Save the King” but of adding his own interpolations from “Yankee Doodle”, “Land of Hope and Glory” and the chimes of Big Ben. The atmosphere it had taken an evening to build was punctured in a few seconds of idiocy.

Uhlig’s press quotes, largely from his native Germany, made extravagant comparisons with past heroes of the keyboard such as Haskil, Horowitz and Kempff. These were giants whose performances spoke individually and illuminated the music. Uhlig is the barometer of new Europe – humane, liberal and universalising at best; over-regulated, anodyne and homogenised at worst. It was rare that fiery passion blistered Uhlig’s veneer of refinement. Uhlig sporadically impressed and interested me, but ultimately left me unmoved.

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