A Journey from Hymn to Song with Uchida

United StatesUnited States Bach, Schoenberg, Schumann: Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Carnegie Hall, New York City, 18.4.2013 (DA)

Bach: Preludes and Fugues from The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book II: No.1 in C major, No.14 in F sharp minor
Schoenberg: Six Little Piano Pieces, Op.19
Schumann: Waldszenen, Op.82
Piano Sonata No.2 in G minor, Op.22
Fünf Gesänge der Frühe, Op.133

Tributes to Sir Colin Davis, who died earlier this week, have been profuse and genuine at Carnegie Hall. The Staatskapelle Dresden dedicated their recent concerts and indeed their entire American tour to their old conductor laureate, and Mitsuko Uchida devoted this recital to ‘a great musician with an enormous heart and so much love for both the music and the people who made music with him.’ As his longstanding collaborator, most recently in Beethoven concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra, she would know.

Uchida’s second and final encore, the slow movement of the Mozart’s K330 sonata, was surely an unannounced tribute to that greatest of Mozarteans. Rarely, in my experience, has H. C. Robbins Landon’s description of Mozart’s music as ‘smiling through tears’ seemed more apt than in this completely shattering few minutes. Uchida’s preternaturally restrained playing overlay emotions at bursting point as the music almost involuntarily slipped between major and minor, blurring the line between them. At the moment she transformed the trio’s theme from distraught F minor to humbly dignified F major, one understood that Mozart’s simple beauties, beyond and yet within us all, might be just one of the reasons why Sir Colin called the composer’s music ‘life itself.’

The rest of this concert was scarcely less impressive. Uchida is well-known for her Schumann and Schoenberg, but less so for her Bach, and indeed for her Scarlatti, whose D minor sonata (K9) was the first encore. My ears are most accustomed to András Schiff’s Bach at the moment – I recently reviewed his English and French Suites – and Uchida’s was predictably a different approach, less focused on florid ornamentation, clarity of diction, and rhythmic punch and more concerned with long lines and calmer textures. Yet Bach’s music can take and perhaps deserves all manner of interpretations, and the trick is to make any performance sound ideal in any given moment: just as with Schiff, so with Uchida here in two preludes from the second book of The Well-Tempered Clavier. The C major prelude benefitted from Uchida’s ability to generate the amplest of legato phrasing and the deepest of tones even without use of the sustaining pedal. The fugue progressed ineffably, taking its drama solely from counterpoint, which is of course quite enough. The F sharp minor prelude dreamed much more melancholy dreams, while its sliding stile antico fugue wrapped itself inside out as lines at once melded and maintained their individuality.

The distance between Bach and Schoenberg is much smaller than most would think, and if the latter’s music were programmed as thoughtfully and played so gorgeously as it was here surely audiences would demand to hear more of it. The Six Little Pieces might be dissonant, but they are very far from austere or incomprehensible: here Uchida made them character pieces as well as pointing out their links to Bach. There was something of Bach’s gestural flourishes to the opening piece, even if the colors were much more watery. The second, marked Langsam, was eminently playful, as if a disembodied Chopin piece were searching for itself. Thirty seconds it might only last, but the wealth of emotions in the fourth piece said just as much and perhaps more than Schumann manages in his miniatures, while in the Debussy-esque fog of the final piece time seemed to stand still, particularly as the final chord was depressed so gently yet so fully that you could feel the strings vibrate even at the quietest of pianissimo.

Schumann took up the bulk of the program, however, in the form of three sets that Uchida is yet to record. In the greatest of Schumann playing, poetry of phrasing must be lavished upon the composer’s hunting parties, rural landscapes, and tiny characters: the Wald and its inhabitants must take on the universal, regenerative meaning for us that the German Romantics saw two centuries ago. Few manage it finer than this pianist. The Waldszenen were full of tiny details, hazy paintings of subjects gently loved. Take the ferocious vehemence and sincerity of purpose Uchida granted to the Jäger auf der Lauer, or the poignant yet purposeful solitude of the Einsame Blumen, or the fluttering breezes of a Freundliche Landschaft. With airy, impressionistic, yet logical arpeggios Vogel als Prophet seemed to look straight at the Schoenberg we had just heard, and while the Jagdlied certainly possessed all the bravura pomp it required, it also had a typical honesty.

One often forgets Uchida’s purely virtuosic talents, so devoid of ego is her playing, but if there were ever a place in Schumann’s music to let go it is in the G minor sonata’s first movement. Taking its So rasch wie moglich marking literally yet never relinquishing the expressive possibilities Schumann’s embedded melodic lines, Uchida powered through this tumultuous music at a frankly scary pace. The second movement was a welcome contrast in its melodic paean to things only hinted at. Rollicking dissonance and purity of attack returned in the brief scherzo, while the finale’s battle of shivers and balm returned and but failed to resolve the first movement’s fears.

Finally, the Gesänge der Frühe. Too often these short dawn songs are seen as the final step to Schumann’s madness, rather than the triumph they seem in understanding pianists’ hands. Uchida’s organ-like textures pierced through the frostiness of the first piece, and she underlined the jarring but not unexpected harmonies of the second. The third thundered, while the fourth managed to balance Schumann’s flurries and the ethereality of a tune that here sounded like a chorale. The final minutes returned to Bach, a benediction that sounded unerringly right: moreover, just as in her Mozart, Uchida made Schumann’s journey from hymn to song seem just.

David Allen