Mitsuko Uchida

Sonata in C minor, D958
Játékok [selections: Antiphone in F sharp; Tumble-Bunny; Portrait 3; Dirge 2; Hommage à Christian Wolff (Half-Asleep); Play with Infinity]
Die Kunst der Fuge, BWV1080 – Contrapunctus I
French Suite in G, BWV816 – Sarabande
Études symphoniques, Op.13 [1837 original version]

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 2 April, 2008
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mitsuko Uchida has made some of the most notable recordings of Mozart and Schubert. Thus her two encores, a Mozart slow movement and a Schubert Impromptu, were especially artless yet probing of the music’s recesses and simple yet divine. Nearly as close to perfection as the Bach ‘Sarabande’ that was an advertised part of this recital – as ‘sacred’ a moment as will ever be heard in the ‘secular’ concert-hall.

Not that everything was entirely elevated, for the Schumann was rather earthbound. Some of the ‘studies’ (or ‘variations’) were too carefully articulated so as to remove the improvisatory (schizophrenic, indeed) and fantastical qualities that Schumann’s music thrives on. Which is not to deny Uchida’s many poetic touches – but these were undone by a rather forced grandeur and also by a reckless finale that compromised Schumann’s designated notes. Although Uchida no doubt played the 1837 Original Version that was trumpeted, there was nothing here in terms of music that is not associated with performances of the revision, save the extra bars in the finale (that Schumann correctly identified as needing to be cut); but, editorially, this is a ‘confused’ opus as pianists have tended to ‘pick and mix’ a conflation of movements including the addition of five ‘posthumous’ variations.

If the Schumann had failed to take wing, the first half was largely inspired. The first of Schubert’s last-three sonatas was fiery and crystalline and tailored with exquisite dynamic changes. Contrasts of tempo were managed so as to avoid sectionalising the first movement. The succeeding Adagio, solemn and deeply reclusive, gave way to a severe and halting minuet and a driven finale. (The International Piano Series includes D959 from Imogen Cooper, 15 April, and, on 27 June, D960 from Alfred Brendel.)

This performance of intense identification was followed by a sequence of pieces from György Kurtág’s multi-ranging Játékok (‘games’, an on-going series begun in 1975) interspersed with two movements from Bach, including that sublime ‘Sarabande’. ‘Antiphone’ was a palate-cleanser to introduce the purest of musical thought in the first Contrapunctus of ‘The Art of Fugue, to which Kurtág’s aphoristic explorations of scales, single notes and refined dynamics made ear-catching divergences – If not to all in the audience who were more interested in making their own noise!

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