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Review: ‘Transcendent’ Mitsuko Uchida in Recital at Carnegie Hall

By Brian Taylor, Contributing Writer, April 1, 2017

Mitsuko Uchida, one of today’s most transcendent pianists, appeared at Carnegie Hall in a captivating program of Mozart and Schumann, music she has long been interpreting, balanced with the New York premiere of a new piece written for her by German composer Jörg Widmann.

The program began with Mozart’s familiar Sonata in C major, K. 545, a staple teaching piece for young pianists. Exploring an impressive spectrum of soft dynamics, scales dripped from Uchida’s arms like strings of pearls, and the subtle harmonic pleasures in this enduring example of the classical sonata seemed freshly unlocked. The second movement uncovered an exquisite Schumann-anticipating yearning in Mozart’s bel canto-like melody. The third movement was played with the earthy gravity of a peasant dance, yet finished with the grace of a ballerina. Uchida takes an almost ironic approach to Mozart’s cadences and finishing gestures.

Pianists going back to Liszt have grappled with Schumann’s writing for the instrument, which is physically ungainly and interpretively awkward. His manic-depressive temperament (modern scholars speculate various possible causes of his famous mental health problems) expressed itself through an embrace of ambiguity: disjointed, asymmetrical phrases, syncopated chord changes, and novel dissonances. Much of his piano music juxtaposes plaintive, ethereal melodies with episodes of jarring hotheadedness, born of the struggle between his literary alter-egos, Eusebius and Florestan (sort of his inner Apollo and Dionysus).

Uchida is a pianist who eschews hysterics and might seem too contained a pianist to illuminate the hallucinatory, impetuous music of Schumann. But her Schumann is poetic and expansive, and illustrates her extraordinary mastery of both the instrument and complex musical forms. Her playing is reminiscent of the great Schumann interpreter Alfred Cortot, but with more right notes — no easy feat in the abrupt, baffling passages that open Kreisleriana, Op. 16.

This masterpiece from 1838 contains in its eight movements a universe of distinct worlds and calls upon the pianist to plumb the depths of human experience. Uchida does this with an assured, flexible use of time, and by coaxing an innumerable variety of colors from the instrument, using timbre in service to counterpoint, to create planes of texture. A long line in the bass register will be played with a different attack and pedal effect than the shimmering accompaniment in the middle register, and an extended singing line in the treble will somehow manage to sound like it is coming from another instrument altogether. Her pedaling is both generous and judicious, employing a wide palette of shadings. One could easily be transfixed by her gilded shoes flutter-pedaling and slowly controlling the decay of sonorities to create moments of repose that resonated in the hall.

Jörg Widmann, born in 1973, composed his Sonatina facile for Ms. Uchida. It is a paraphrase or deconstruction of the Mozart sonata which opened the program, and sounded as if Mozart’s score had been held too close to a flame and the notes began to melt off of the staves. An example of post-modern music which does not adhere to any specific school or dogma, but one which continues a tradition of twentieth-century composers like Stravinsky (in Pulcinella) or Lukas Foss (in Phorion) taking ancient music and processing it through their own filters. Widmann’s rhapsodic second movement was especially interesting, perhaps because its connection to the Mozart material was less identifiable.

The recital concluded with Schumann’s monumental Fantasie in C major, Op. 17. Composed in 1836 (and later revised), this ‘fantasia quasi una sonata’ was initially intended to benefit a Beethoven monument and includes (in the lovesick coda to the first movement) a quote from “An die ferne Geliebte,” Op. 98, and can only be described as late-Beethoven-esque. The second movement, a knotty march, could become grey and muddy in lesser hands, but Uchida articulated even the treacherous leaping figures with clocklike precision, snapping rhythm and, as always, careful, consistent voicing. The contemplative last movement was made perfect by Uchida’s elegant approach to Schumann’s long melodic arcs, and her vivid, evocative responses to the piece’s many harmonic surprises.

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Mitsuko Uchida, piano, in recital at Carnegie Hall on March 30, 2017.

MOZART Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 545
SCHUMANN Kreisleriana
JÖRG WIDMANN Sonatina facile (NY Premiere, co-commissioned by Carnegie Hall)
SCHUMANN Fantasy in C Major

MOZART Andante cantabile from Piano Sonata in C Major, K. 330


Cover: Mitsuko Uchida (from a previous recital at Carnegie Hall); photo: Christopher Smith.


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