Mitsuko Uchida & Friends

Lyric Suite
Four Impromptus, D899
Pierrot Lunaire, Op.21

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Barbara Sukowa (speaker)

Brentano Quartet [Mark Steinberg & Serena Canin (violins), Misha Amory (viola) & Nina Maria Lee (cello)]

Marina Piccinini (flute) & Anthony McGill (clarinet)

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 9 March, 2006
Venue: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke's, Old Street, London

One of “a series of concerts in tribute to the artistry of Mitsuko Uchida”, this offering (repeated the following night) combinedvaried Viennese classics such as the pianist has become identified with in the course of her career.

The collaborative nature of these recitals means other ensembles were able to participate in a broadening of repertoire. Thus the Brentano Quartet opened proceedings with a quietly passionate account of Berg’s Lyric Suite: ‘quiet’ in the sense that, while dynamic contrast was never overlooked or played down, the resulting intensity seemed to arise out of the music rather than being applied as an afterthought. Thus the Andante was suavely amorous without any need to lay on extraneous sensuality, with the mystery of the ensuing Allegro achieved through an emphasis on textural clarity.

Not that the reading was at all under-powered – witness the accumulated passion of the Adagio or the equally well-graduated deliriousness of the Presto, whose dividing-line between the decisive and the desperate was finely drawn. Framed by the relaxed joviality of the opening Allegretto and searching desolation of the closing Largo, the performance encompassed a wide expressive range, without any risk to the formal inevitability with which Berg keeps the intensifying emotions in check. The outcome satisfied in its purposeful reconciling of the work to an earlier era of heightened Viennese expression.

An era represented by the first set of Impromptus that Schubert composed in 1827, almost as an alternative to the sonatas which otherwise dominate his late piano music. And it is to Uchida’s credit that she integrated such sharply contrasted pieces into so cohesive a whole: moving intently from the quixotic developing variations of the C minor Impromptu to the Chopinesque mood-swings of the E flat (its coruscating coda realised with absolute poise), then from the G flat’s song-like soulfulness (melody and accompaniment exquisitely intertwined) to the alternation between the amiable and the impetuous which characterises the A flat. Many pianists have found comparable poetic depths in this music, but few have conveyed them with so sure a sense of their place in the overall formal scheme.

How to pace the music so that its disparate parts audibly amount to a coherent, indeed inseparable whole is just one of the challenges facing performers of “Pierrot Lunaire” – Schoenberg’s “light and ironic” sequence of Albert Giraud settings (their wan capriciousness given an altogether more violent twist in Otto Erich Hartleben’s translations) which was among the few real successes of his lifetime, and which has continually intrigued and bemused listeners in the nearly-100 years since the first public unveiling.

This superbly co-ordinated performance was notably enhanced by the presence of Barbara Sukowa, in the role for which Schoenberg evolved the technique of ‘Sprechgesang’ that remains hard to define even today. No doubt that Sukowa’s approach puts the emphasis firmly on speech rather than song – yet her ability to move rapidly between registers, and the vast range of expressive subtleties that she so deftly employs, ensure that the contours of Schoenberg’s vocal lines are vividly projected and powerfully sustained. To take an example from each of the work’s three parts: her lovelorn caressing of the flute part in ‘Der kranke Mond’; the lacerating intensity with which her voice tore through the instrumental texture in ‘Rote Messe’; and her detached weariness of ‘O alter Duft’, against which the ensemble’s inferring of tonal fulfilment sounded as otherworldly as that evoked by the poetry itself.

Although Sukowa (rightly) dominated proceedings, the performance was strong on teamwork and a sense of the musicians gearing their contributions towards a common expressive goal. Mark Steinberg’s irascible violin and Nina Maria Lee’s combative cello, Uchida controlling the ebb and flow with undemonstrative authority, complemented Marina Piccinini’s limpid flute and Anthony McGill’s piquant clarinet. The result was a marriage of individual artistry and an unified viewpoint rarely encountered in this work.

  • Broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on Sunday 30 April at 2 p.m.

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