Harrods International Piano Series – Mitsuko Uchida

Sonata in A minor D537
Moments Musicaux D780
Preludes (selection)
Sonata No.2 in B flat minor, Op.35

Mitsuko Uchida

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 24 January, 2001
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

The myth runs: historic pianists gave heroic, interesting interpretations but were often cavalier with the score; modern ones are trained to correctness at the expense of character. Mitsuko Uchida, more than any other pianist now active, shows that one need not be sacrificed to have the other.

Her Schubert – even now when her recordings of much of the piano music are available – is a revelation: there can be no one in the world today playing Schubert better. She uses drama to emphasise structure, and lyricism to conceal its shortcomings. One would not have guessed from her performance that the early A minor sonata is little known, or considered poor in the Schubert canon. Most notably in the middle Allegretto, which prefigures the great finale of Schubert’s penultimate sonata, Uchida brought a staggering sympathy and care of interpretation to every phrase, always conscious of melodic shape, always using the subtlest rubato to present Schubert’s designs in the most favourable light. One could cite a thousand details – for example the independence of the accompaniment in the reprise of the Allegretto (likewise the triplets in the second Moment Musical), or the perfectly-shaped hanging phrases with which Schubert so often introduces his transitions – which gave the music an extra dimension of interest and narrative.

Uchida speaks of Schubert’s ‘musical moments’ as her discovery of the year, a real song-cycle without words. Her interpretation bore this out. It’s always revealing to hear great performers play familiar works, to see what new insights they can bring to hackneyed favourites. In this case, it was a whole world of colour and poetry. The pieces do work as a cycle; they do have a depth and complexity that make them serious works for the concert platform. Of the six, the fourth was the greatest shock, its repetitive dance melody became mesmerising, the trio infinitely varied in tone and hue, all iteration perfectly voiced. Once one had been given the clue to think of these pieces as a cycle – Uchida ran one piece straight into the next – it was easy to imagine them as a kind of An die ferne Geliebte for piano, the third whimsical, the fifth an outburst of anger, all passion resolved and spent in the last.

The recital’s second half did not promise or deliver quite such originality, though Uchida’s Debussy has also long been famous. Ondine rippled and dazzled and passed in what seemed a few fleet moments, with impossibly quiet pianissimi; Voiles was notable for its excellently judged, hushed tone. La cathédrale engloutie was impeccably constructed; as so often, one feels that Uchida has a crystal-clear conception of each piece in her head and merely instructs her fingers to reproduce that, magically, in sound.

As the programme-note rightly pointed out, the slow opening bars of Chopin’s Second Sonata have often been omitted in the exposition repeat. Uchida has always championed them, and scholarship now supports her. But even the great are human. The sonata made an uncertain start, with some technically insecure moments. Not until the trio of the scherzo, where Uchida had the chance to do what she does best – paint intricate, detailed and surprising musical-pictures out of the simplest material – did she regain her balance. From then on she did not look back. The funeral-march began with a metronomic precision in the bass, and was then softened by the most lyrical of episodes. Uchida made the unsettling, modernistic finale restless but controlled, disturbing without being undisciplined, caged but untamed like Rilke’s panther.

We were treated to two perfect encores: a Scarlatti sonata (K9/L413) played una corda throughout, with breathtaking proportion and delicacy. At the close, her left-hand imitated plucked harpsichord notes to uncanny effect. Such graceful baroque playing made one cry out for Uchida recitals – and recordings – of Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti…. Then, predictably, and this time with self-confession, a Mozart slow movement, from the B flat Sonata K570, unadorned, unblemished. Any virtuoso can render complexity; it takes genius to let simplicity speak for itself. I cannot possibly do real justice to Uchida’s playing with mere words, but if the many snippets of overheard conversation are any indication, none of us will ever forget this recital.

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