Tuesday 11 August 2009

Salzburg Festival (6): Uchida et al. - Mozart, Schubert, Webern, 9 August 2009

Grosser Saal, Mozarteum

Mozart – Violin sonata in E minor, KV 304
Webern – Four pieces for violin and piano, op.7
Webern – Three little pieces for violoncello and piano, op.11
Mozart – Piano trio in G major, KV 564
Schubert – Piano trio in E-flat major, D 929

Mark Steinberg (piano)
Clemens Hagen (violoncello)
Dame Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Mozart, Webern, and Schubert are not only ‘Viennese’ composers – with due respect to the city of Mozart’s birth and host of this performance – but they are also all composers in whose music Dame Mitsuko Uchida has always shone. And so it was on this occasion too. Whilst Uchida is a genuine chamber musician, there could be no doubt that hers was the guiding presence here, the deserved warmth of reception focused upon her. If only the reception had not also included a mobile telephone, a good deal of conversation and noisy fidgeting, and, worst of all, next to me, a Francophone woman who disrupted Webern’s Op.7 pieces with two flashes from – sorry to disappoint – her camera. Hell is not always other people; on some occasions, it is too cold for them. I detest having to ‘review’ the audience but, on this occasion, it was simply impossible to ignore the distracting, selfish behaviour of a minority.

Now I may return to the music. Mozart’s E minor violin sonata received a performance that had nothing of the extrovert to it but was intensely musical. Uchida and Mark Steinberg were not quite equals, her tone never failing, whilst he could, especially during the first movement exposition, sound tentative. Poised and yet at times defiant, this movement worked very well, once Steinberg got into his stride. Interplay between the two musicians was a joy in itself; one did not need to see Uchida’s constant glances towards the violinist, for one could hear them. And it was a joy to hear Mozart’s Neapolitan harmony make its point as it did. The second repeat was taken: unnecessary but hot unwelcome. Uchida’s opening to the second and final movement was simply delectable: ravishing in its beauty, yet exuding understated tragedy. Out of this the rest of the movement could grow. Once again, she proved supremely poised, style and idea as one. Now Steinberg proved that the violin could sound at the lower end of the dynamic spectrum without sounding tentative. The trio was equally beautiful, a prime example of the infinite sadness of Mozart in a major key, enabling the return to E minor to sound all the more profound. At the end, some member of the audience laughed; I have no idea why.

The two Webern works were played without a break, enabling one to hear the composer’s development from the aphoristic to the hyper-aphoristic. Once again, the perfection of Uchida’s touch was to the fore in Op.7, the first movement’s extremity of quietness looking forward to Nono. The violence of the contrast with the ensuing Rasch was striking: here, all was febrile motion, intensified in Schoenbergian manner, if not duration, before the brief appearance of a lyrical melancholy. As in all of the finest Webern performances, the third movement reminded one that every note counts, indeed that every note is worth a hundred of those from many other composers. Extreme contrast was again registered, the slow tempo and softness of touch in Uchida’s piano epilogue providing a master-class in this music. The fourth and final movement integrated the aforementioned contrasts whilst retaining its own particular character. Uchida and Clemens Hagen immediately embarked upon the Op.11 pieces. Hagen imparted a lyrical intensity that instantly announced the arrival of a different instrument. Again, hints of Schoenberg surfaced in the second movement, Sehr bewegt. During the final movement, Hagen proved especially adept at minute dynamic adjustments not only between notes but even during the sounding of pitches. The intensity of his and Uchida’s performance was almost unbearable.

Mozart’s piano trio, KV 564, was taken once again without a break. Emerging from Webern, Mozart was made both strange and yet familiar. The concerto-like quality – where all instruments are concerned – of the first movement in particular was winningly conveyed. So enjoyable was the music making, lyrical and full of life, that it almost seemed to pass as quickly as a Webern movement; certainly one was left wanting more at the end. Uchida’s – and not only Uchida’s – poise was again showcased in the Andante. Undoubtedly led from the piano, there was nevertheless a hallmark of civilised interplay, which in its profundity looked forward to Beethoven. The minor key variation evoked Gluckian noble simplicity, without in fact being simple at all, whilst the return to the major mode brought an infectious sense of fun, to which Uchida’s nimble and meaningful fingerwork was crucial. A true Viennese lilt characterised the captivating finale. Unusually full-blooded for these often anaemic times, it reminded one of how Mozart looks forward not only to Beethoven, but also to Schubert and Brahms. Dresden china was out of stock on this occasion. Mozart’s melodic and harmonic twists were lovingly traced, but direction born of a sure structural command was ever present. The delightfully understated conclusion would have melted the stoniest of hearts.

The second half was devoted entirely to Schubert’s E-flat major trio. Fuller textures were immediately announced in a first movement also characterised by well-judged rubato. The general style was positioned between Mozart and Brahms – that is, just where Schubert should be. However, that tentative quality I noted in some of Steinberg’s earlier playing was present once again during the first hearing of the second subject, though it would subsequently receive a melting voicing from Uchida. Passion and precision were generally in good balance throughout. The measured onward tread of the second movement was, again, well judged, not entirely disrupted even by the violence of Schubert’s Romantic outbursts. The passion – that word again – of Uchida’s playing here could hardly fail to take one’s breath away. Graceful canonical writing was the province of the scherzando, with a magic to the pianism that for me recalled Sir Clifford Curzon. The trio, however, was very strongly marked by foot-stomping rhythm; it was certainly a contrast, though I thought it a little too much. And I could have done without Steinberg’s literal foot stomping here and elsewhere. The players undoubtedly had the measure of the great span of the finale, although I am afraid that they could not quite rid me of my quite heretical view that it is simply too long. (I do not feel this of many other instances of Schubert’s ‘heavenly lengths’.) Nevertheless, the music was vividly characterised, without sounding episodic. The vocal quality of Hagen’s tone was especially notable here. After the expansiveness of the Schubert, it was most welcome to hear as an encore a melting account of the slow movement to the Mozart piano trio, KV 502. The final memory I treasure of this concert is, quite appropriately, neither the disruptive audience, nor the contrast between Webern’s brevity and Schubert’s longueurs, but the exquisite Mozartian touch of Mitsuko Uchida.