Mitsuko Uchida at Carnegie Hall [Beethoven, Schumann & Chopin]

Piano Sonata in E minor, Op.90
Davidsbündlertänze, Op.6
Prelude in C sharp minor, Op.45
Piano Sonata in B minor, Op.58

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Lewis M. Smoley

Reviewed: 11 February, 2011
Venue: Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall, New York City

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonFew pianists mesmerize audiences as Mitsuko Uchida does, communicating her individuality with an intimacy that is beguiling, almost as if she were extending her hands to guide us through an adventure of the spirit. This Carnegie Hall program concentrated on the first half of the nineteenth-century with works by Beethoven, Schumann and Chopin.

Beethoven’s E minor Piano Sonata was written in the summer of 1814. It contains two movements, the first lively and expressive, contrasting strong chords and propulsive passagework with moments of gentle lyricism; the second looks forward to Schubert. Uchida emphasized the contrast in temperaments in both movements, intensifying the more vigorous music with fiery passion while musing over more lyrical passages. Although her approach is very personal, she does not engage in excessive affectation that can tug at the musical line causing disconcerting tempo fluctuations. In the second movement, Uchida’s delicate touch lent nuance to each phrase and imbued minor-mode digressions with subtle shadings of color.

Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze (1837) consists of eighteen character-pieces named after the imaginary Davidsbündler and set as a dialogue between its two principals, Florestan and Eusebius, whom Schumann identifies by their names after the first piece and by their respective initials after the others except the ninth, sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth, each of which describe them both. Uchida played up the contrasts between the extrovert Florestan and the introverted Eusebius, suggesting that the two characters were engaged in competition. Florestan’s pieces were played with flaming passion, devilish wit or wild ferocity. For Eusebius’s pieces, Uchida generated a sense of deep longing kept under wraps intermingled with moody introspection and occasional fidgeting nervousness.

The recital’s second half was devoted to Chopin, beginning with his Prelude in C sharp minor, perhaps his most profound work in this genre and resembling a nocturne given the meditative mood established by Uchida during the opening and her beautifully ethereal treatment of the closing section. Uchida’s performance of the B minor Sonata was simply thrilling. It opens with majestic chords that soon give way to a hard-driven first-subject reminiscent of Beethoven while casting a moderately tragic spell over music aflame with passion; Uchida then suffused the romantic second theme with furtive passion that takes us far from the urgency of the first theme, yet gradually, almost unnoticeably, leads us back to it. The brief scherzo that follows juxtaposes an impishly fleeting opening with a middle section of a more introspective nature. As with the first movement, the Largo begins with forceful chords, but gives way to a simple, tender-hearted melody that seemed to emerge from deep within Uchida’s persona. Diving straight into the finale, Uchida drove its galloping rhythms with a will, while pressing its rapid figuration forward with increasing intensity. Her playing was on fire.

Among her three encores Uchida offered the Andante from Mozart’s C major Piano Sonata (K545) and showed that even the simplest and most familiar music can sound fresh and inspiring.

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