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In Mozart-Heaven Two Wings for Uchida

Mitsuko UchidaIn the first of four star-powered piano recitals that the Washington Performing Arts Society offers this season, Mitsuko Uchida made a start that was either promising for things to come or set us up for consequent disappointment when her colleagues – Murray Perahia (March 29th), Maurizio Pollini (May 17th), and Alfred Brendel (February 7th) – hit town. (What a line-up, by the way. Only Martha Argerich, who does not give recitals any longer, could add to that foursome, while Lang Lang, who is coming on April 13th, can’t detract from it.) A ringing, hard ‘C’ with plenty of air around it reverberated through the Strathmore hall as Mitsuko Uchida took to the Fantasia in C Minor, K. 475, performed in conjunction with the C minor sonata, K. 457, in her all-Mozart program.

That ‘C’ and the similarly played anchoring notes that establish its key gave the fantasy’s first bars a brooding, threatening quality that made the shift into the light mood of the Adagio appear as though the music entered a different room; if suddenly sunlight illuminated the quaver-populated landscape on an overcast day. It made for a smooth yet sudden shift along the emotional axis. There is beauty in the music, of course, but it is Mitsuko Uchida’s playing that elevates a Mozart recital to one of the finest events one could think of. I don’t know of any other artist who could make such a program not only palatable but indeed most desirable to me.

Uchida’s playing, the notes she touches, how she touches them, the notes she doesn’t play – all that has an inevitability about it. A perfect mix between precision and warmth that makes her Mozart so engrossing, so generous to the ear. To me, her playing emerges between the no-nonsense De Larrocha Mozart (who keeps everything together like few others) and the romantic Schiff approach (who milks these works seductively if, perhaps, a bit beyond their natural yield). When Uchida plays Mozart, there is no argument about approach, no concern about ‘style’ in the listener’s mind. He is directly situated in the music. Extramusical considerations don’t come up, so well does she hide ego and ‘interpretation’ behind the music. She may have very strong ideas about Mozart-playing (or, for that matter, pretty much anything) – but the result is always pure music, not in any way audibly wilful. Her playing, especially in the great Viennese composers Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, elicits the critic’s helpless description of “utterly musical,” which is usually a sign of being at a loss for words when confronted with an ‘innate rightness’ of the musician and his product.

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W. G. Mozart, Piano Sonatas et al., M. Uchida
Concentrating on the music would have been easier yet, had the Strathmore audience not been oddly active. No one could quite sit still; somebody was always sneezing, wheezing, wiggling in a gnarling chair, coughing, dropping assorted accessories and programs… which caused a floor of noise from which the music had to emerge. Perhaps the Adagio, K. 540, failed to captivate most listeners? The work, a single movement created by the 32-year-old Mozart is, as the foremost Mozart scholar Alfred Einstein puts it, “one of the most perfect, most deeply felt, and most despairing of all his works.” Some of that greatness was lost in the process of recreation – although I’d hesitate to assign blame for that to Mlle. Uchida.

The opening Allegro of the F major sonata, K. 533/494, after intermission was a little busy, but if its fugal parts did not come to the fore as one might have liked, the Andante appeased. Thanks to an abundance of complete (and affordable) Mozart sonata cycles, the sonata is probably not as unknown as the omnipresent program notes writer Eric Bromberger claims… even if it does not pop up in many recitals. The harmonic curiosities of the sonata that he describes, too, are more a score-reader’s prerogative to marvel at than the casual listener’s who will – occasional dissonance and chromatic ambiguity as may tantalize the musicologist – have heard plenty of perceptibly Mozartian writing instead. The Andante could have benefited from a tauter approach while the Rondo: Allegretto was all that one could hope for, again.

Other Reviews:

Andrew Lindemann Malone, From Pianist Uchida, Daring, Intense Mozart (Washington Post, November 17)
The Sonata in D Major, K. 576, was the kind of experience that induces the as-if-pained face of pure delight when the aesthetic encounter is just impossible to otherwise express. The carefully rolled-out notes of the exquisitely balanced performance could have carried one, feather-like, through all three movements, especially the supreme Andante. If it didn’t, a few asthmatics were to blame, not the artist. Wonderful, too, how Mitsuko Uchida’s left hand plucked notes out of her own Hamburg Steinway in a concluding Allegretto that was nearly perfect.

With admirable applause-tenacity the ecstatic audience extracted an encore out of the lithe and delicate performer – the slow movement of sonata K. 570 – which was a dream that no one would have minded, had it lasted much longer.

Mitsuko Uchida on record:

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Uchida is known foremost as a Mozartian – and that is hardly unfair, given the status of her concerto and sonata cycles both live and as recorded. The former, with Jeffrey Tate and the English Chamber Orchestra, is top of the line as far as I am concerned – although competition from Perahia’s Sony cycle is strong and much value to be had from the Brendel cycle that competes with Uchida on the Phillips label. There are individual recordings that may supercede any particular recording – but as a whole, I find none more consistently satisfying.

Her Mozart sonata cycle has been discussed here before – some are its equals, none are better. Her Schubert has its detractors… albeit not many. I take her cycle of the sonatas even over Kempff’s – in part because of the superior sound quality that Philips gives their artist. Her interpretation of the 3 Klavierstücke (Thomas Larcher’s excepted) is sans pareil. The only substantial Schubert piece missing from her 8-CD set is the C major Fantasie (“Wanderer”) – but for that we have the Pollini recording (DG Originals), anyway. Her Beethoven cycle has been discussed recently – it continues to be a joy… unobtrusive and delightful… a ‘safer’ choice than Pollini/Abbado (DG, oop) and more traditional contender next to the other recent recording – the superb Aimard/Harnoncourt (Teldec).

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But besides these three, Uchida really excels in other areas. Never have the Études of Debussy’s been played more ravishingly. Her Schoenberg concerto under the baton of Pierre Boulez trounces all others (most notably the excellent Glenn Gould on CBS/Sony) with ease – and is indeed so good, so understanding, that she might ease Schoenberg’s otherwise fairly forbidding work into less predisposed ears. About her recent forays into the Mozart Violin Sonata world I have written about at every opportunity and I won't miss this one, either: It's a marvel - it needs your ears. Die schöne Müllerin with Ian Bostridge, too, is a wonderful recording - far better, for that matter, than Mr. Bostridge's Winterreise. Since that includes about all the recordings I know of her, she seems to be one of those rare phenomena where every recording is an event and success (like Krystian Zimerman or, as of late, Nicolaus Harnoncourt and René Jacobs) – which, having heard her, is not hard to believe.