Mannerism Trumps Lyricism in a Disappointing Piano Recital

United StatesUnited States Berg, Schubert, Mozart, and Schumann: Mitsuko Uchida, (piano), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 18.2.2016 (BJ)

Berg: Piano Sonata, Op. 1
Schubert: Four Impromptus, D. 899
Mozart: Rondo in A Minor, K. 511
Schumann: Piano Sonata No. 1 in F-sharp minor, Op. 11

The last time I heard Mitsuko Uchida perform, partnering Dorothea Röschmann in a Lieder recital a few months ago, I enjoyed her playing enormously, and was moved to comment in these virtual pages that “Her tone was beautifully pearly, her phrasing eloquent, her dynamic range well judged, her support of the singer unfailingly sympathetic.” So, despite a long history of disappointments in my encounters with this highly reputed pianist, I came to her latest solo recital for the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society with the highest expectations.

Certainly she achieved her familiar feats of digital virtuosity in the evening’s faster music, and she offered some beautiful pianism in the quieter parts of her program, to the originally announced version of which she generously added Mozart’s superb A-minor Rondo. There were a few touches of genuine enchantment in her playing of that work, and the slow movement of her Schumann First Sonata was entirely compelling in its delicacy and poise.

But the latter is a little one-page Aria (so titled by the composer) that lasts perhaps three minutes in performance, and three minutes of magic, together with the brief best moments of her Mozart Rondo, hardly constitutes an ample level of satisfaction in a program pushing the two-hour mark.

The rest of the Mozart seemed to me insufferably mannered. In the early part of her career, Ms. Uchida’s reputation was established largely through her Mozart performances, but I always had the feeling that she was playing him as if she would rather have been playing Chopin. This time I realized that I was wrong: she played the Rondo not as if she would rather have been playing Chopin, but Liszt—a great and too often underrated master much less like Mozart than Chopin was.

My dissatisfaction with this recital was by no means all concerned with neglected subtleties or perpetrated exaggerations of phrasing. In alliance with indispensable artistic flair, the technical trick to achieving great performances of piano music is to foster in the listener the illusion that the piano is not a percussion instrument. And on this evening (which the bulk of the audience, I have to acknowledge, clearly enjoyed enormously) a percussion instrument was just what the piano proved itself to be in any dynamic level above piano.

In the Berg Sonata, this hardly made a great deal of difference. Berg has on occasion been jocularly called “Schoenberg’s best work,” but that, in my book, is not saying very much. This early one-movement work is an affair of clotted textures and rebarbative harmonies, which puts me irresistibly in mind of what Virgil Thomson said when, in the course of a discussion about his colleagues, he was asked his opinion of Roger Sessions. The core of his response was to the effect that Sessions was a brilliant composer, a sheer genius (he admired Roger enormously), but “what a pity his music sounds so awful!”

The Schumann sonata is a different matter. It naturally contains many arresting inspirations, in both the Florestan and the Eusebius veins of the composer’s emotional make-up. But it must surely be one of the most ineptly structured works ever written by a great composer. Its formal layout resembles nothing so much as a few dozen acts of coitus interruptus committed one after another: its penchant for appearing, again and again, to be on the point of reaching some conclusive point, only to head off instead in a new beginning, makes even Bruckner seem like a master of logically concise argument.

The case is not helped when every passage above the softer dynamic levels is hurled at one with the kind of violence about which, when it infected my own youthful attempts to play the piano, my mother had exactly the right corrective advice to offer: “Don’t bang, dear!” Do not misunderstand me: I am not asking, even in the relatively restrained dynamic realm of Mozart, for some sort of excessive walking-on-eggs delicacy. But there is a world of difference between a warm, healthily incisive fortissimo and sheer brazen aggression. And quite aside from its dominance in the Schumann, that aggression produced a distinctly unpersuasive account of Schubert’s wonderful second set of Impromptus.

For anyone who encountered these four pieces for the first time in Ms. Uchida’s performance, I think it would have been quite impossible to go away inbued with the slightest awareness that Schubert wrote some of the most beautiful piano music—indeed, some of the most beautiful music—ever composed. I treasure an oldish CD, now sadly absent from the ArkivMusic site but traceable through Amazon, by the London-based pianist Geoffrey Saba. In addition to sounding superb, he plays the exhilarating episode of the E-flat-major Impromptu with all the dash, Schwung, slancio, and rhythmic flexibility that were missing from Uchida’s earthbound interpretation.

In conclusion, I would suggest that Ms. Uchida’s playing is rather like Joyce Carol Oates’s writing. Oates, in her novels, never seems happy dealing with normality: her mastery lies in the spheres of the grotesque, the neurotic, the emotionally disturbed. To judge from playing both in the Berg sonata and in the scherzo of the Schumann—in some respects unconvincing, but nevertheless unmistakably committed and enthusiastic—Uchida clearly relates best to similar emotional states, and less well to lyricism or open-hearted warmth. And a comparable distinction is illuminated in Sir Donald Tovey’s essay Normality and Freedom in Music, which brilliantly explicates which of those qualities is more important and more fundamental to the success of the art.

Bernard Jacobson

3 thoughts on “Mannerism Trumps Lyricism in a Disappointing Piano Recital”

  1. I attended Ms. Uchida’s recital at Carnegie Hall last night, also with the greatest expectations, but I must unfortunately report that I left quite disappointed. I actually really love the Berg Sonata, and I have studied and performed this elaborate, lush work. There were so many moments just glossed over or blurred in Uchida’s performance last night, and this started right off with the Berg. With a piece as dense and contrapuntal as this, climaxes must be judiciously paced or a sense of fatigue—mixed with sea-sickness—occurs. There were far too many moments of downright banging away, which produced lots of harsh sound. The Schubert began auspiciously, with those marmoreal, held G octaves gleaming through the hall, and the simple melody that is treated so inventively throughout the piece was well articulated, but Uchida’s playing soon became rushed and impatient. The second Impromptu alternated between too fast and too bangy, and the constant triplets in the sublime G-flat Impromptu came across as treading water furiously rather than the bubbling brook that I feel these rhythmic figures suggest. The last Impromptu began well, when she–finally!–took her foot off the pedal, but after the simple, crystalline beginning, the piece came across as banal, with little attention to line. The Mozart was best when pianissimo, but there were several curious emphases on unimportant figures and lines. After a while, her shtick of subito pianissimi throughout the program became wearisome. I have to respect her stamina for the Schumann, which has stretches that seem endless, but here as well there was a lot of percussive pounding. Maybe this was just an off night for her, but I heard so little of the poetry and elegance that have been a hallmark of her recordings.

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  2. I attended a Cleveland Orchestra performance with Uchida playing Bartók. No question that the performer has technique—but for me the wrong technique. Lack of warmth and and clangy high register. But the most astonishing aspect of her performance was her mannerisms. She literally ‘mouthed’ every note she played, resulting in a continual distraction. She pulled back her hair, adjusted her glasses and even played some notes with bebung as if it would help. This last mannerism stunned me. I am sorry I sat so close to the piano. A very ‘off’ performance as my first live Uchida concert.

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