International Piano Series 2003/04 – Mitsuko Uchida (12 December)

Sonata in E, Op.109
Sonata in A flat, Op.110
Sonata in C minor, Op.111

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 12 December, 2003
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

These three sonatas are pieces so profound that they can never be played too often or studied too much, yet it can be difficult to find anything new to say about them or truly to transport the listener to the otherworldly sound-picture of Beethoven’s late period. On the evidence of this recital, Mitsuko Uchida, who has few equals in Mozart or Schubert, is yet to stamp her authority on this most revered and difficult area of the repertoire.

Uchida perceives these sonatas as a unity; her scholarship and academic dedication are as unquestioned as her musicality, and there is no doubt she brought a consistency and single-mindedness of approach – for example deliberate fore-grounding of detail, even at the cost of introducing agogic accents, and emphasis on bringing out the rhythmic force of accompanying figures.

It seems to be the case with Uchida, that as she made her name (above all in Mozart) in the face of criticisms that her playing too closely resembled “Dresden china”, that she has elected to overcompensate with a degree of conscious virtuosity and muscularity in the appropriate repertoire. These may very well suit what she has chosen to play (I have twice heard her in Chopin’s 24 Preludes live), but does not play to her strengths as a pianist. Thus she perfectly conveys an idea of how the music should sound, without necessarily succeeding in producing that sound.

In the more virtuosic and powerful aspects of Op.111, this was certainly the case. It was easy to extrapolate the drama, richness and power of the slow introduction and fiery first movement, but Uchida was unable to avoid the impression that her pianism was at its limit and under strain. Admittedly, the Festival Hall is not the most sympathetic size or acoustic for solo piano recitals.

This is not to deny Uchida’s rare and fundamental virtues – she is one of the pianists I most admire – and in the first part of the C minor sonata’s slow movement, her sense of structure, originality of detail and gradation of dynamics were spell-binding. If the latter part lacked the same qualities of control and had small lapses until the very fine last page, this was still an impressive interpretation.

Overall, I must say that Opp.109 &110 were disappointing – with first movements that again contained moments of great beauty, but seemed not altogether coherent in structural conception. The respective Scherzos were undeniably messy. The final Arioso and Fugue of Op.110 contained some passages where the listener was transported – in the certainty of the bass voices in the first fugues, and above all in the translucent una corda of the fugue’s reprise – but also moments of disturbing roughness and inaccuracy, notably in the peroration that ended the fugue.

Likewise, while some of the Op.109 variations were very fine, especially the second, and their final phrases and transitions had an excellent grace, again, in the passages where the textures were dense, it was as if the pianistic demands distracted Uchida from her musical purpose.

Uchida’s scholarship and thought were evident throughout, most notably in the many textual issues surrounding Op.110, but it is arguable that they detracted from the naturalness of the interpretation as contributed to its authority. It is cruel and often wrong to hold the performer to the letter of the text, but I am not sure that every dynamic variant or not-notated interpretative nuance was either successful or intentional – an issue that might be irrelevant for a performer who places the flow of the music above everything, but seems apposite to someone as scrupulous as Uchida. Her Schubert is characteristically very heavily interpreted, her Beethoven perhaps has yet to strike the balance between originality and literalness.

This recital was, overall, disappointing, partly because of high expectation. Both in Mozart and Schubert, Uchida’s performances had a long gestation before they flowered into what is generally recognised as being amongst the best in the world. It may be the same with her Beethoven.

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