Sunday, 6 April 2008

Mitsuko Uchida piano recital, 6 April 2008

Musikverein

Schubert - Piano Sonata in C minor, D.958
Kurtág - Antiphon in F sharp major
Bach - The Art of Fugue, BWV 1080: Contrapunctus I
Kurtág - Tumble-Bunny
Kurtág - Portrait 3
Kurtág - Dirge 2
Kurtág - Hommage à Christian Wolff (Half-Asleep)
Bach - French Suite no.5 in G major, BWV 816: Sarabande
Kurtág - Spiel mit dem Unendlichen
Schumann - Symphonic Etudes, Op.13

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

This was a wonderful recital. Mitsuko Uchida, should anyone need reminding, is one of the greatest living pianists; her performances this evening attested to this in no uncertain way. The Schubert sonata opened with a Beethovenian vehemence: not manufactured, but intrinsic to the work, or at least to its opening. Not for nothing was this, the first of Schubert's 'late triptych', written in C minor. The second subject was beautifully - aching beautifully - voiced, an object lesson in sentiment without sentimentality. Uchida's balance between harmony and counterpoint was unerring. The line spun through the slow movement was as close to perfect as one is likely to hear, attentive to every melodic and harmonic development but never neglecting the greater structure. And the touch was to die for! The tricky final movement was perhaps not quite so compelling, with the odd awkward corner - admittedly, as much Schubert's responsibility as Uchida's - but this is so minor a caveat I wonder whether I should delete it.

The selection of Bach and Kurtág - a favoured combination of Kurtág himself - was equally marvellous. If there is any justice in the world - at best an open question - then this should have won a legion of new Kurtág devotees. There was no disingenuous attempt to make the music of the two composers sound alike, but a willingness to let the music speak for itself, once again exquisitely voiced, so that the listener would make of it what he would. Although in theory I regret not hearing more of the Bach, so beautifully performed as it was, at the time nothing could have been further from my mind, so engrossed was I by what came next. Kurtág's antecedents in Bach, but also in the language - extended - of Bartók and the almost unbearably expressive concision of Webern were there for one to hear, but not didactically so. The selection rather resembled a Baroque suite of its own. And the way Uchida and Kurtág made us listen more closely, for instance through the extremely quiet music of Spiel mit dem Unendlichen, was not wholly dissimilar from the insistence upon close listening of Nono's later music.

The shorter second half was given over to Schumann's Symphonic Etudes, which received a commanding, all-encompassing interpretation. Uchida is not short of vigour where required, but the utmost delicacy is equally available to her. What was perhaps most impressive about this performance was how truly 'symphonic' it became. As we progressed through the work, one noted the variation form, but in retrospect, the owl of Minerva only taking flight at dusk, one realised that there was something more, the finale being so in the strongest, symphonic sense. Voice-leading was as impressive and moving as the beautifully legato-pedalled chordal passages. There was virtuosity aplenty, but it almost seems shameful to name it such, so far were Uchida's concerns from anything other than the purely musical. After some of the perverse and, in one case, meretricious pianism I have heard recently, this was balm to the soul. So too were her Mozart and Schubert encores, the latter's G flat Impromptu of a distilled beauty rare indeed.

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