Mozart Sonatas for Piano and Violin I – Uchida/Steinberg

Sonatas for piano and violin

Recital One: 11 October 2001
Sonatas – in G, K301; in E flat, K380; in D, K306; in E minor, K304

Recital Two: 18 October 2001
Sonatas – in C, K296; in G, K379; in F major, K376; in B flat, K454

Mitsuko Uchida (piano) & Mark Steinberg (violin)

Reviewed by: Ying Chang

Reviewed: 18 October, 2001
Venue: Wigmore Hall, London

One of the great advantages of fame and reputation is creative freedom. There are few performers who would be able to offer a single concert, let alone four, of Mozart violin sonatas. Uchida, one of the foremost Mozart interpreters, can easily fill the Wigmore Hall for her series of them all.

In the era of Haydn piano trios, and indeed of these sonatas, chamber music weighted in the piano’s favour was quite usual. Indeed, long after the string instrument achieved parity, even prominence, in the duo-sonata, the piano still had first billing in the title. Ever since Romanticism, our modern aesthetics have become used to the piano either as the junior partner, the accompanying instrument, or as the protagonist in a concerto drama.

Mozart’s sonatas clearly favour the piano; the piano part often carries more of the melodic interest, and sometimes ’trumps’ the violin. This effect is very marked in K454, and appears at its cruellest right at the end. The violinist struggles with some very troublesome triplet quavers, only to be completely put into the shade by the pianist’s final, semiquaver flourish – played with impeccable virtuosity by Uchida – which is written to fit gracefully and easily under the fingers. In a recital where a Mozart sonata appears at the beginning, and where the violinist often projects a stronger musical personality than the pianist, we receive an aesthetic compensation for the imbalance between the instruments. Uchida and Steinberg force us to confront the issue head-on.

Uchida is the more interesting performer. Because she invests each phrase, even the most apparently mundane passages of accompaniment, with originality and commitment, the ear is drawn to her, not to Steinberg. At times therefore, one is listening to a piano sonata with violin obbligato. Some violinists might feel that this is not an unjust description of the works themselves. Uchida’s expressive staccato, and her ability to shape the music with a precision of detail that sounds completely intuitive, was always evident.

I do not mean to denigrate Steinberg. He plays sensitively, his tone is sweet and expressive, and ensemble between him and Uchida was excellent. At its best, the understanding between the players was very impressive.There were a number of passages – most notably the episode in the finale of K301, or the trio of K304, where the violin sang every bit as winningly as the best of the piano playing. Overall, he painted with a far broader brush, resorting to attack and display in allegro passages where Uchida, however passionate, was always measured. It may be that pianists are keener to perform these sonatas than violinists are.

These sonatas were not written for big, modern grand pianos, of course. In the dryer acoustics of the South Bank venues – and particularly in the far larger space of the Royal Festival Hall – Uchida’s Mozart never appears out of scale. This is the rich, warm acoustic of the Wigmore Hall, so supportive and flattering to voices. Although the delicacy of Uchida’s playing is evident, even she cannot disguise the problems of playing forte chords. The problem of balance was particularly evident in the first concert, where Steinberg’s silvery tone, so appropriate for chamber music, highlighted the disparity between instruments. In the second concert, he played with more weight and body, but at some cost to his own subtlety.

It would be tedious to describe every movement of the twenty or so heard thus far – though the playing always ensured one would listen with concentration and to every detail. There have been many magical moments – the intricacy of K380’s slow movement, the breathtaking staccato and pizzicato variation from K379, the care with which the sonata-form slow introduction led into the ’Allegro’ of K376, and the ’all passion spent’ tranquillity of the two encores – respectively the ’Andante’ movements from K526 and K380.

There have been moments of fresh insight – K304, so familiar to amateur players, was denied sentimentality by faster than usual tempi; K301, in contrast, was played without the least rush and thereby given more space to breathe. K454 emerged, rightly, as the most mature of the works; its last movement, reminiscent of an opera finale, the most exuberant and extrovert item in this half of the series and a fitting conclusion to it.

The very authenticity – piano dominant – of these performances highlighted aspects of the music that are difficult for our ears. Uchida’s persuasive advocacy requires new ears to perceive something often neglected or skated over. Whatever the problems, however, the after-effect of hearing Uchida is something profoundly life-enhancing. Whether it is the wit with which she concludes the finales, or the serenity of her trademark Mozart slow movement encores, or the uncanny ’rightness’ of her playing, or just her infectious enthusiasm, one always leaves Uchida’s concerts uplifted.

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