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S & H Recital Review

Mitsuko Uchida (piano), RFH, Friday, December 12th, 2003 (CC)


Mitsuko Uchida’s sensitivity for, and her interpretative security in the music of Mozart and Schubert, is a well-documented phenomenon of contemporary music making. She is less well known for her handling of Beethoven, so the chance to hear her deliver the last three sonatas in one parcel was not to be missed.

Clearly many others thought so. A packed house can inspire a performer, but it can also instil fear if the venture is risky and that would appear to have been the case here. The Sonata in E, Op. 109, was given a performance that by anyone else’s standards would have been more than acceptable. Here its function was that of a stepping-stone to greater things. The very opening melted its way into existence, exquisitely shaded, a cordial invitation for the full hall to enter into Uchida’s intimate circle. Uchida’s chording was a model of carefully considered weighting, yet some stabbed-at sforzati indicated all might not be well. Nevertheless her sound was marvellously full (one could see her using her full weight, channelled through her arms).

The alternately determined/capricious Prestissimi presented no obstacles technically; but the ‘Gesangvoll’ finale began with the theme which, though simply presented, could have been more rapt. True, those foreground shadings so characteristic of Uchida were there in all their beauty - but where was the long-range thought? The melody of the first variation was truly cantabile; the fourth variation was a carefully controlled textural crescendo. But the resolutely forged fugal fifth created expectations for the sixth that Uchida could not meet. Under Pollini’s fingers (in the final concert of his complete traversal in this hall some years back), one felt the piano would explode as Beethoven’s imagination threatened to transcend even the limitations of a modern Steinway. With Uchida, the audience was presented with an impressive compendium of trills and scales. The final return to the theme was impressive, however, imbued with an Olympian calm – though the applause came too soon. Perhaps this is a ‘working’ interpretation, and when the final recorded product emerges (she should be careful not to put it down too soon), it will be of the utmost integrity.

Uchida began her Op. 110 with a lighter tone than might be expected (one is almost tempted to call it ‘shallow’). Taken at a speed that veered more towards Allegretto than Moderato, there nevertheless emerged an unfolding of Beethoven’s compositional mastery. Uchida presented this excellently, resolutely not getting in the way. Only a few ‘plonky’ left hand attacks reminded us that this is not a fully formed statement as yet. The concentrated, grimly determined Scherzo contradicted Nick Breckenfield’s programme note, which described it as ‘Beethoven at his most genial and playful’. Perhaps the highlight of this account was the almost Webernian, quasi-isolated sound events that surfaced enigmatically in the third movement. As Uchida inched her way towards great Beethoven playing, this became compulsive listening. The fugue’s granitic statement in the bass, the harmonically sensitive return of the Arioso and the final fugue all conspired to leave one breathless with anticipation for Op. 111.

Uchida gave Beethoven’s final C minor Sonata an imposing start, using very little pedal. Crescendi were perfectly graded, the Allegro con brio et appassionato finding Uchida using an appropriately steely tone. One could only sit open-mouthed at her finger strength. The final Arietta did invoke deep peace. The variations’ cumulative effect was visceral, the close pure magic.

Remember the premature applause for Op. 109? Once again the clapping started straight after the marvellously interior final chord (was this clapping to indicate, ‘Í know its finished now’, or ‘Í want to be on the Radio’ - the recital was recorded). Uchida remained perfectly still; the applause faded out. Then, and only then, did she let us show our appreciation for her achievement.

In anyone else’s hands, one would have left more than satisfied. It is the knowledge that Uchida has further to travel in her explorations of late Beethoven that is the inspiring thought this reviewer took home with him - and that it had been a privilege to share part of the journey.

Colin Clarke


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