Royal Festival Hall
Beethoven – Piano Sonata no.27 in E minor, op.90
Schumann – Davidsbündlertänze, op.6
Chopin – Prelude in C-sharp minor, op.45
Chopin – Piano Sonata no.3 in B minor, op.58
When it comes to Beethoven, memories of Daniel Barenboim – most recently – die hard at the Royal Festival Hall. Dame Mitsuko Uchida showed that she had nothing whatsoever to fear from the comparison in the op.90 piano sonata. A little surprising was the sonority: more definitely ‘Steinway’ than I might have expected from Uchida, though that is no sense an adverse criticism; more than once, I was put in mind of Maurizio Pollini. She plunged us immediately into the drama, supreme flexibility shown to be necessary but never exaggerated. Rhythm, melody, and harmony were equally well defined, as they must be. I am not sure that I have heard the motivic parallels with the E minor slow movement of the early op.14 no.1 sonata so clear, nor so telling. There was some beautifully hushed playing in this first of the two movements – and, even though this was not to continue, a well behaved audience too. Schubertian desolation at the close was vintage Uchida. The second movement’s voice was nevertheless Beethovenian from the outset, motivic insistency and the melodic sublime equally apparent. This was Beethoven verging upon ‘late Beethoven’ but not quite there yet – or, to put it another way, there were more hints of the late Bagatelles than the late sonatas. Crucially, there was the Wagnerian long line, utterly crucial to Beethoven, however unfashionable it might be to say so in certain circles. The movement as a whole marked, as it should, the apotheosis of the Classical rondo.
Schumann came next: the Davidsbündlertänze, which Uchida has recently recorded. The opening pieces of the first book gave in performance a textbook example of the varying manifestations of Schumann’s mood: Florestan, Eusebius, and a few more besides. Youth was immediately to the fore in the first, in a sense very un-Brahmsian – one could understand why Boulez might relish Schumann but disdain 'old' Brahms – though motivic integration already told a more complex tale. Innig is the marking for the second piece – and innig is what we heard. ‘Expressive’ or ‘expressif’ does not begin to translate the marking; ‘inward’ might be better. Uchida understood perfectly that this is German Romanticism; quite rightly, there were intimations of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg’s op.19 pieces in particular. High spirits in the third piece foretold Schumann’s own Faschingsschwank aus Wien, whilst hints of Chopin would characterise the fourth and sixth. Uchida was simply delectable in her flexible command of line during the fifth piece, likewise in the seventh upon its melting from Beethovenian melodic sublimity. The reminiscences of the ninth, Lebhaft, the final piece in the first book, brought out thematic, cyclical unity and transformation. Uchida proved equally impressive in the second book. A strong sense of a story unfolding was imparted to the eleventh piece, the thirteenth receiving an equally strong impression of more overtly impassioned Romanticism. Song came to the fore throughout, but there was nothing more impressive than the subtly subdued conclusion.
Schumann and Chopin were both born in 1810: what a year for the piano! Uchida devoted her second half to the latter, the truest poet the instrument has yet known. The op.45 Prelude announced an immediately Chopinesque sonority; one realised in retrospect that Schumann’s intimations of Chopin had been just that: intimations. Here was the real thing. Line, voicing, and colour: one could not ask for more, for that twisting and turning of the melodic lines could only be Chopin. Uchida took the third sonata attacca, presenting a musico-dramatic account of the first movement that at times tended towards Wagner, though at no cost to the Bellini-like vocalism of the second group. Perhaps the movement was a touch on the rhapsodic side, but I am straining to criticise. After all, one can argue that the music is itself somewhat rhapsodic. Pollini’s way is not the only way and, at any rate, this is not Beethoven. The tumult Uchida summoned where necessary banished any lingering doubts about unduly ‘feminine’ Chopin, whether in performance or composition. A whirlwind was unleashed in the second movement, but of the musical rather than merely ‘virtuosic’ variety. Rock-like rhythmic underpinning enabled melodic unfolding at the beginning of the slow movement. Recitative characterised certain subsequent passages, until a true synthesis of the two ‘characters’ emerged: very Schumannesque. The finale was not taken at quite such a dash as Krystian Zimerman did earlier this year in the very same hall; however, the comparison is, if anything, to Uchida’s advantage. We heard a Chopin who, here at least, cannot quite shake off Beethoven’s shadow, and thus stands poised between the Classical and the Romantic. Uchida’s virtuosity was none the less for not being quite so easily displayed, part and parcel of a more expansive conception of the sonata as a whole. By the same token, one was not left in any doubt of the piano’s stature as the greatest musical instrument of all.
To follow, as an encore, we were treated to a rapt rendition of the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata: the sort of thing of which one might disapprove in isolation but which, in context, could not have been more appropriate. What a pity, then, that audience interactivity – were these people really on their consumptive deathbeds? – rocketed to a new high.