A Diabelli to Join the Greats

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Schubert, Beethoven: Mitsuko Uchida (pianist). Carnegie Hall, New York, 9.4.2014. (SSM)

Schubert: Piano Sonata in G Major, D. 894
Beethoven: Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli, Op. 120

Over a four-year period in the 1980s, I waited impatiently for the release of another set of Mitsuko Uchida’s landmark Mozart sonata recordings. Sure, there were plenty of sets of Mozart’s piano music available, from Walter Klien’s budget set for VoxBox to Christoph Eschenbach’s expensive set from DG. But Uchida had a way with Mozart that made me understand the appeal of these oft-times slight pieces, and she brought her talents to the Mozart piano concerti, her recording of them reaching the top of anyone’s list. She is doing the same now with the Beethoven sonatas, combining a fabulous technique with sharp intellectual acumen.

At Carnegie Hall this week, she was like a sprite that had flown onto the stage, bowing once and seemingly unaware of the audience. In fact, after the intermission she started playing without waiting for a  number of people to get to their seats.

Of all the major composers in the classical period, I’ve always found Schubert to be the one least capable of writing a decent development section in sonata form. Sometimes, when the music is catchy, as it is in the Symphony No. 9 or the C-Major Quintet, it doesn’t really matter: one is so enthralled with the music that one can suspend critical judgment. The G-Major Sonata is not one of those pieces. In the first movement of the sonata, the development section simply repeats the same theme with minimal variations; I counted some thirty iterations of the opening eleven chords (not as bad as the D Major with sixty iterations of the six-chord opening). Even the best pianists, and that includes Mitsuko Uchida with her ability to bring freshness to the work, cannot overcome the sonata’s repetitiveness. Alfred Brendel, who considered this piece to be the very definition of the poetic, gave a quite different rendition, defined by a sensibly speedier performance time, particularly in the first movement which he completed in about twelve minutes, whereas Uchida took about twenty. As a point of reference, Sviatoslav Richter takes twenty-six minutes.

Ms. Uchida’s Diabelli Variations was a different experience completely. Here she brought power and poetry to each variation with subtlety and a superb technique. One may have wanted a little more humor in Variation 13 with its out-of-place hiccups, or in Variation 22 with its play on Mozart’s “Notte e giorno faticar” from Don Giovanni, but this was more than compensated for by her attention to detail. The presto movements flew by, not as a blur but as discrete notes. In Variation 19, marked Presto but really meaning “as fast as you can,” Uchida had something going on, whether it was the pedals or her attack, that made me think I had never heard it before. In Variation 24 she turned the Fughetta into a devotional and mournful prayer. A variation such as the 28th verges on both dissonance and madness, and Uchida played it as if written not by Beethoven but by Ligeti. As in many of the performances of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, the final few Diabelli Variations are often played without pauses between them. The last few epitomize all that went before. Here there was poignancy, resignation, intellectual fire and a final nod to the simplicity of the original waltz, ending as the work does with the simplest of minuets. At the conclusion there was no drama, none of the usual waiting for her to lift her hands from the keyboard as a signal that the audience could now applaud. For her the performance was over; for us it will join the other great Diabellis, those of  Stephen Kovacevich, Peter Serkin and Vladimir Ashkenazy, lingering in our memories as one fantastic recital.

Stan Metzger

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