Mitsuko Uchida at St George’s

Rondo in A minor, K511
Piano Sonata, Op.1
Piano Sonata No.28 in A, Op.101
Fantasy in C, Op.17

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Rian Evans

Reviewed: 3 April, 2009
Venue: St George’s, Brandon Hill, Bristol

Mitsuko Uchida. Photograph: Richard AvedonMitsuko Uchida’s piano recitals are invariably models of programming. While her own note explaining the reasoning behind her pairing of Beethoven’s Opus 101 Sonata and Schumann’s Fantasy – namely, exploring the conscious avoidance of the tonic in their respective first movements – was revealing of her fastidious approach, it was the juxtaposition of Mozart’s A minor Rondo and Berg’s Opus 1 Sonata that felt absolutely perfect.

Uchida’s affinity for Mozart was what first endeared her to audiences and, in particular, her playing of the concertos, so it was instructive to hear her treat the A minor Rondo, written in the wake of some of the finest concertos, in similar vein. She coloured phrases as though they were being exchanged in dialogue between the piano and wind instruments, with a natural fluidity and beautifully sustained melodic lines. Equally striking was her attention to the chromatic writing with all its emotional drama, and it was the transition from Mozart’s chromaticism and his carefully wrought interweaving of voices to the highly chromatic Berg that seemed so very apt here.

The lyrical intensity that Uchida brought to Berg’s Sonata had an organic, almost volcanic, force. Yet her acute sensitivity to the melodic lines and to their complex workings felt like an entirely logical, if extreme, continuation of what Mozart had been exploring and it was salutary. Rarely is the connection between first and second Viennese schools so strongly felt, nor indeed so viscerally.

Given the depth of engagement in these two works, it was surprising – to say the very least – to find Uchida really quite unsettled in the Beethoven that followed. Part of the aura of instability did relate to the avoidance of the tonic to which she alluded in her note, but when some wildly unstable playing crept into the F major march with the kind of smudges that are wholly uncharacteristic of this pianist, it was a different matter. While the slow movement – marked ‘Langsam und sehnsuchtsvoll’ – had the soul-searching and longing that makes this one of the most profound, albeit brief, movements of late Beethoven, the finale again felt slightly chaotic. Since Uchida is usually the embodiment of Zen-like control, with everything about her playing reflective of a wonderfully elegant, understated beauty, this was all the more perplexing. But it proved that she is human.

Though often powerfully delivered, Schumann’s Fantasy was by no means impeccable either, and, while a sense of throwing caution to the winds is sometimes an appropriate reflection of Schumann’s passion, this wasn’t always the case in this performance. As the work progressed, Uchida’s grip got tighter and it was in the finale that she finally regained composure, perhaps soothed by the serene barcarole-like mood, its 12/8 metre complementing well the 6/8 of the Mozart Rondo with which the evening had begun. Even so, it seemed a world away from the incomparable poetry and nobility of Radu Lupu’s interpretation of the Schumann in his St George’s recital just six months earlier and genuinely disappointing. Fortunately, the strength of the Mozart and Berg went a long way to compensate.

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