Royal Festival Hall
Schubert – Four Impromptus, D 935
Beethoven – 33 Variations on a Waltz by Anton Diabelli, op.120
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
This was, by any standards, a challenging programme. Mitsuko Uchida has long been in her element in Schubert, and so it proved again here, though no thanks to external – or should that, with reference to the Royal Festival Hall, be internal? – circumstances. The first of Schubert’s second set of Impromptus was brought to us, at least to start with, in typical Uchida manner. If the delicate passages told most of all – they usually do! – then there was no want of force, not least when it came to the double octaves. It was, nevertheless, the pianissimo writing and performance, and the progress ion therefrom, that really drew us in. There was considerable, though never overstated, cumulative power. And there were plenty of song-echoes in Schubert’s figuration, yet with no doubt as to his singular form here. Alas, a good part of the close to the piece was blighted by the twin interruptions of an alarm and what appeared to be a recorded announcement outside the hall, instructing patrons to leave. No one did, but Uchida, visibly distressed, was forced to leave the stage for a while until things were sorted out. Eventually we were informed that there had been a false alarm.
I wondered whether, when Uchida returned to the stage, she might have started again, but no, she resumed with the second Impromptu. In this particular context, its balm, its consolation were especially welcome. Vulnerability was supremely well judged. There was, moreover, a compelling sense of key relationships and distance. The different lilt of the third piece was equally well captured, its harmonic determination and implications included. It was difficult not to sense an implicit contrast being set up with Beethoven’s handling of variation form after the interval. The second variation was apparently carefree: the qualification of ‘apparently’ just as important as the ‘carefree’. The third variation’s pathos was all the greater for the lack of indulgence (never, in any case, a trait one associates with this artist). There were clean lines, yes, but there was equally great depth of feeling. The final variation hinted at the world of the Trout Quintet, albeit with palpable shadows. Its coda was as lucid as I have heard; and yes, it left the requisite lump in the throat. Finally, the F minor Impromptu was despatched in piquant fashion, seemingly pre-empting Brahms’s ‘Hungarian’ music, yet at the same time like an extended Moment musical, eminently sensitive to Schubert’s own formal imperatives. It surprised, even when one knew it. Despite the interruption, Schumann’s claim that these sets of Impromptus might be considered in some sense as sonatas did not seem so very wide of the remark; this certainly had the quality of a finale.
Uchida seemed reinvigorated, or perhaps better reattuned, following the interval, the theme to the Diabelli Variations splendidly alert. Her performance of the first variation showed itself fully alert to its potentialities, whether ‘purely’ musical or musico-historical: was that a hint of Brahms here, or a presentiment of Die Meistersinger there? Like the Missa solemnis, this is highly dialectical music, not the least of whose dialectics is between the characteristic and the un-characteristic Beethoven. Bass and harmony came very much to the fore in our ears and minds during the second variation, whilst the strangeness of earlier ‘late’ Beethoven, op.111 for instance, reasserted itself in the third, in a sense both reinstated and reconciled – though with what? Not for the first time with Beethoven, Hegel came to mind. As the variations continued upon their way, Uchida showed a willingness to deal with Beethoven’s messiness one might more readily associate with an artist such as Daniel Barenboim; this was certainly a performance that tried to take Beethoven at as many of his own terms as possible, and generally succeeded in doing so. There was, for instance, imperious command of rhythm in the seventh variation, rhythm which was, however, always allied to harmony (a crucial alliance so many contemporary performers seem to forget). There was awkwardness, too, productively so as perhaps only Beethoven can be. Haydn’s peasant moves problematised and – almost – transfigured. At times, Liszt did not seem so very far away.
‘Late’ disjunctions were definitely felt in the ‘teen’ variations, which came more and more to sound like expansions, exacerbations even, of the Bagatelles. Beethoven’s wondrous imagination intensified its explorations, opening our ears and minds; for instance, the ‘boogie-woogie’ of the sixteenth variation registered in context as appropriate climax and refuge. With dialectics aplenty announcing and working themselves out, even Schoenberg would have seemed faint-hearted by comparison. The mysterious stillness of the twentieth variation – Liszt referred to its sphinx-like quality – was necessarily followed, though certainly not effaced, by fury and exaltation. Leporello duly disconcerted us in the twenty-second variation. Mozart in a different guise seemed to haunt the twenty-fourth, counterpoint and harmony in perfect equipoise. It might be too late for Mozartian paradise, but for a few moments, one at least felt within its reach. Bach too, of course, haunted proceedings.
The pathos and strength of the great slow variations spoke of human dignity as only Beethoven can. Faustian questing had taken us so far, and yet it also seemed only just to have begun. The expansiveness of the thirty-first variation thus proved properly generative, opening up a host of possibilities in a fashion or at least with a consequence not entirely dissimilar from the greatest serial explorations of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, a fugue somehow came to seem the only possible solution. But what a singular fugue! Not through ‘eccentricities’ of performance but through fidelity that yet encompassed Beethovenian imagination. Surely even Liszt would have been proud of the transition effected to the final variation. ‘Delightful’ might seem a strange adjective for the conclusion of such a work, but there was the truest of delights to be experienced here, the mediated restoration both similar to and quite distinct from that effected by Bach in his Goldberg Variations.