Mitsuko Uchida

Sonata in C, D840 (Relique)
Sonata in B flat, Op.106 (Hammerklavier)

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Reviewed by: Rob Pennock

Reviewed: 23 March, 2005
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Mitsuko Uchida came to prominence when she recorded the complete Mozart sonatas and since then she has expanded her range both in recital and on CD to include most of the core repertoire. Here she opened, as an 80th-birthday tribute, with the rarely performed Notations of Pierre Boulez. Composed in 1945 when the composer was 20, these are a combination of Schoenberg and Debussy (and, in the ninth piece, possibly an unintentional highly chromatic and atonal rewriting of the coda of Liszt’s B minor Sonata). Uchida played with a lack of precision in the more rhythmic, faster pieces, but also a sense of compelling impressionistic haze in the more reflective passages.

Schubert has become something of a Uchida speciality and yet her performance of the surviving two movements of the ‘Relique’ was profoundly disappointing. Both the first and second subjects of the opening movement have a strong rhythmic base which must be contrasted with more legato phrasing particularly in the second subject, its left-hand bass chords form a vital part of the massive climax of the development section. Unfortunately Uchida’s phrasing was dry and uninvolving and her use of rubato and legato very limited; the left-hand bass chords lacked any sense of menace and bleakness. On a more positive note her tempo was a genuine Moderato and there was no slowing for the second subject, although it was all rather efficient. Exactly the same could be said of the Andante: there was no variety of touch and tone and the march-like elements at the recapitulation failed to make the disruptive impact that Richter, say, found.

The ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata is a huge challenge for any pianist, and it contains the greatest slow movement in the piano canon. For the first movement, Uchida’s opening tempo was fast, but there was too-much pedal and a lack of rhythmic and dynamic variation. Rather curiously, after the relatively ‘straight’ statement of the first subject, whenever it re-appeared there was an agogic hesitation in the seventh bar, which disrupted the flow.

The brief scherzo was better with sprung rhythms and greater tonal variation, although the upward semiquaver run near the close was imprecise. Uchida’s tempo for the sublime Adagio sostenuto was flowing but there was no sense of spirituality in her playing. The beautifully moulded right-hand melody in the second half of the extended first subject was played very stiffly and the descending bass chords of the second subject conveyed no sense of profundity. In the development much of the phrasing was smooth and shallow and the coda brought no sense of the first subject being transformed into an extended dying cadence.

The performance of the last movement was totally incoherent. The introductory Largo was too fast and, in the fugue, there was excessive use of the sustaining pedal, weak fingering and a complete lack of transparency and rhythmic control. There were a huge number of wrong notes and when the coda arrived Uchida had to slow down from her very fast main speed, presumably because she couldn’t play it in tempo.

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