Mitsuko Uchida: A Compelling Recital

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Bach, Schoenberg, Schumann. Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Royal Festival Hall, London, 6.3.2013 (RB)

Bach – Two Preludes and Fugues from ‘The Well Tempered Clavier’
Schoenberg – Six Little Piano Pieces Op 19
Schumann – Waldszenen Op 82
Sonata No. 2 in G minor Op 22
Gesänge der Frühe Op 133

Mitsuko Uchida chose to focus on Schumann’s piano music in her latest recital. She selected a range of works across the whole of the composer’s creative output from the relatively early G minor sonata to Gesänge der Frühe which was his penultimate work before his tragic mental breakdown. As an aperitif, Uchida played two preludes and fugues from Book Two of the ‘Forty-Eight’ and Schoenberg’s Op 19 Piano Pieces.

Uchida deployed a wide range of touch and timbre to the pieces by Bach, a composer who I have not heard her play before. The C major prelude was muscular and bullish and the tone full and rounded with Uchida rightly emphasising the grandeur of this opening statement. The fugue was exceptionally clear and had a sprightly dancing quality with Uchida making the most of the playful counterpoint. There was an extraordinary shift in tone colour for the F sharp minor prelude which was played with a soft velvety tone; here Uchida gave us some nuanced phrasing and nice shaping of the line. The F sharp minor fugue is a brilliant triple fugue and here Uchida produced some admirably clear voicing – she used no pedal – and elegant contrapuntal exchanges. I was intrigued by her playing and hope to hear a lot more of her Bach.

Uchida is one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Schoenberg and has already committed his Op 19 pieces to disc. Each of the pieces is only a page long and the set as a whole gives voice to Schoenberg’s weird and expressionistic visions in what was a final farewell to tonality. Uchida’s deployed a wide range of touch, colour and articulation to bring the set vividly to life. The phrasing in the first piece was highly artful and imaginative, while dynamics were superbly controlled in the third and the dislocated rhythms perfectly executed in the fourth. The spectral echoes in the last piece conjured up something really dark and sinister.

Schumann’s Waldszenen (1849) was his last major cycle for piano solo and contains some of his most memorable music. The opening Eintritt was played with a wide range of tone colour and well judged dynamic contrasts but Uchida’s phrasing was perhaps a little overly fastidious. Jäger auf der Lauer was played with power and authority while Freundliche Landschaft had a quicksilver lightness of touch. Uchida captured the surreal quality of Vogel als Prophet and the opening figurations were played with real delicacy and dexterity. The final Abschied was absolutely gorgeous with Uchida letting the grand romantic melody sing out and capturing some magical half lights at the end.

Schumann’s G minor Piano Sonata is a highly virtuosic work and one in which the composer asks for the impossible: the opening movement is marked to be played as fast as possible but Schumann then instructs the pianist to play faster and faster still. Uchida was unperturbed by the technical demands, taking the whirling passagework in her stride and conjuring up the manic energy of the first movement. The andantino second movement was played with rapt eloquence with Uchida giving us some beautifully tapered lines. She seemed to find the solemn quality at the kernel of this movement. Uchida nailed the boisterous rough and tumble energy of the scherzo while the finale was taken at a blistering pace. She made the most of the manic changes of mood while the coda was a breathtaking tour de force.

There is still something of a debate around the musical value of Schumann’s late works: Clara Schumann and Brahms clearly didn’t think much of them and tried to destroy them or hide their existence, as in the case of the Violin Concerto. Gesänge der Frühe (Songs of Dawn)is Schumann’s penultimate work and Clara referred to the “strange mood” of the pieces. Schumann described the work as “characteristic pieces, which describe the approach and progress of morning but more as an expression of feeling than as tone-painting”. Uchida adopted a very slow tempo for the opening movement and succeeded in evoking the contemplative and soulful elements of the piece. I was not entirely convinced that Uchida conveyed the sense of the soul in anguish in the great tolling melody of the second movement, although the mercurial changes of mood were handled well. There was a magical change of tone colour in the third movement and some lovely buoyancy in the rhythms. In the fourth movement, the whirling demi-semiquavers seemed to wisp and flicker in an incandescent way. Uchida’s handled the last movement brilliantly, reflecting the subtle and intangible mood shifts in some rather lovely and delicately nuanced playing.

Uchida received a standing ovation from some members of the audience who were rewarded with the slow movement of Mozart’s Sonata in C major as an encore.

Robert Beattie