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Review: Uchida and Widmann Bring ‘Joyful Purity’ To Zankel Hall

mitsuko uchida

By Christopher Johnson, April 4, 2017

Jörg Widmann, clarinetist and composer, had his New York recital debut at Zankel Hall this past Sunday afternoon. His partner was Mitsuko Uchida. And there was joy, as they say, in heaven.

As performers, Uchida and Widmann are perfectly matched: there is a joyful purity to their work, as if they are in love with what they do, are absolutely entranced with the opportunity to do it for you, and are prepared to give it, and you, body and soul at every moment. They are mesmerizing to watch, but there’s nothing showy about them: their effects fall as it seems they must, but they do nothing for effect—you hang on their every sound and motion, but you never feel pushed or played. Everything seems to be arrived at spontaneously, and it’s only in retrospect that you realize that every note was carefully thought out, exquisitely placed, and voiced precisely as it needed to be.

At the same time, there’s a searching quality to their work, as if each piece were happening for the first time, and as if they and the composers were finding their way as they go. This was especially true—and especially welcome—in the familiar repertoire-items: the Brahms sonata, for example, got back its strangeness and uncertainty of outcome, and the Berg pieces unfolded with tender, wondering lyricism, with an occasional wry flash of wit.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Uchida and Widmann is their physicality: simple, unfussy, focused but never tight, relaxed but never loose, free—sometimes wildly so—but always in the service of the line or the phrase. Everything they do is part of the music, even the simplest mechanics: Uchida’s “Ready?” glance is already expressing the opening notes, and Widmann takes the reed out of his mouth as if fulfilling the phrase just ended. Even a protracted reed-adjustment halfway through the Brahms seemed like part of the music, with both players attuned to it almost equally.

All of which is to say that it was a wonderful concert. After one of Uchida’s solos, my companion leaned over and whispered, “I would go anywhere to hear her play anything.” I agree, and I feel the same about Widmann. If you’re not familiar with his work, check this out, and prepare to smile. It’s not the richest tone in the history of clarinet-playing, but it’s pure and utterly musical, and you will never see anyone more wholeheartedly alive in the moment. Uchida needs no introduction, of course. I would only point out that I have never heard another musician who could strike a sustained open octave, out of the blue, and make you hear minor.

Two of Widmann’s compositions figured on the program: a Fantasie for solo clarinet (1993) and a Sonatina facile, after that C-major sonata by Mozart that everybody knows, for piano solo. The latter, one of the 125 pieces commissioned by Carnegie Hall to celebrate its 125th anniversary season, received its American premiere. Both were essentially comedic: the Fantasie an “imaginary scene” that begins in pastoral mode and proceeds through a zany scherzo, a pretty little dance, and a wild moto perpetuo that suddenly drifts off into a waltz; the Sonatina a series of wrong-note riffs on Mozart’s original, in exact order. A little of this kind of thing goes a long, long way, and while the Fantasie had enough variety and surprise-value to sustain keen interest—it’s written without bar-lines, so any given performer has to improvise the internal relationships—the Sonatina began to seem a bit dogged, even though Uchida played it with great flair and wit. Still, Widmann’s an interesting composer, with attractive ideas and a brilliant ear: his Violin Concerto and Eleven Humoresques will give you an idea of his range, and there are three distinctly different takes on the Fantasie here, here, and here.




Jörg Widmann, clarinet (New York recital debut), and Mitsuko Uchida, piano in recital at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall on April 2, 2017.

BRAHMS Sonata in F minor, Op. 120, No. 1
BERG Four Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, Op. 5
WIDMANN Fantasie for solo clarinet
SCHUBERT Impromptu in C minor, D 899, No. 1
WIDMANN Sonatina facile
SCHUMANN Fantasiestücke, Op. 73

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Cover: Mitsuko Uchida, piano, and Jörg Widmann, clarinet in recital at Zankel Hall; photo: Stefan Cohen.


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