Mitsuko Uchida at Royal Festival Hall – Bach, Schoenberg & Schumann

The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II – Prelude and Fugue in C, BWV870; Prelude and Fugue in F sharp minor, BWV883
Sechs kleine Klavierstücke, Op.19
Waldszenen, Op.82
Piano Sonata No.2 in G minor, Op.22
Gesänge der Frühe, Op.133

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 6 March, 2013
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonMitsuko Uchida certainly knows how to put a programme together, but you could be forgiven for thinking that she might have gone overboard in a recital, which, on the face of it, was largely given over to short or cyclical works, with the one large-scale piece far from being the evening’s centre of gravity. The two Preludes and Fugues stretched the boundaries of contrapuntal abstraction, abstracted still further in the lapidary concision of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces. Then, in the Schoenberg, there are echoes of the very German romanticism that pours out of Schumann’s Waldszenen (Forest Scenes), a style recognisable but weirdly refracted in his late Gesänge der Frühe (Dawn Songs), which he wrote when firmly in the grip of insanity.

Uchida’s identification with the music she plays is well known, but this recital was very special for its sense of exploration and for the way she enabled the music to create its own web of references. The result was imaginative and, in the most subjective moments, incredibly moving. In the Bach, she played up the grandiloquence of the C major against the veiled, supremely pianistic melancholy of the F sharp minor, finding in the latter the range of tone and expression that makes her Bach so timeless. Her knack of briefly highlighting the significance of an accidental or a false relation to tighten the music’s intensity fed, big-time, into the Schoenberg, each of the Pieces a world in a grain of sand, with not a wasted note. Uchida’s extremes of dynamics and touch teased out endless blink-and-you’ll-miss-them refinements and loaded the work with extraordinary density. These atonal pieces are often heard as a necessary vanishing act on the way to full-blown serialism, but they are much more uncompromising and flickering with associations.

It was Waldszenen that anchored the recital, and Uchida played the cycle with a rare sympathy for Schumann’s voice, letting the familiar, romantic and eccentric imagery seep into unknown territory, and injecting an anxiety into ‘Vogel als Prophet’ (‘The bird as prophet’) of Mahlerian bleakness. The torrential heroics of the Sonata sat awkwardly in the recital. Uchida played it magnificently, and in the slow movement achieved a degree of spontaneous rapture comparable to the Fantasy (Opus 17), but even she couldn’t disguise its virtuosic but stretched content. Gesänge der Frühe was in another league, and Uchida unfolded the strange, faltering expression with the sort of art that conceals art. In the jolly rhythms and hunting calls of the third miniature, Uchida suggested that Schumann might have been having difficulty recapturing their natural high spirits with any degree of security, and the fourth piece sounded unflinchingly and sadly dysfunctional. There was a gravity, wisdom and affection in her performance that places her among the very great Schumann pianists.

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