The Inhuman Made Oh So Human
Isaac Stern Auditorium Carnegie Hall
Franz Schubert: Piano Sonatas in C Minor, D. 958, in A Major, D. 664, & in G Major, D. 894
Mitsuko Uchida (Pianist)
M. Uchida (© Justin Pumfrey)
“I sometimes feel that I don’t belong in this world.”
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Last week, I reviewed an experienced, technically formidable pianist who performed a Schubert sonata as if it was a Czerny exercise. That was more than painful. With Schubert, that unworldly artist from whom melodies and motives, iconoclasm and imagination flowed like the Danube River, such a performance should have led the pianist to an inner Inferno circle.
Which brings us to last night and Mitsuko Uchida. And three Schubert sonatas performed with the most immaculate phrasing and understanding, but with that so rare balance between the mortal human and the immortal genius.
One could analyze Schubert sonatas with charts and symbols, as one does with Beethoven. Yet Schubert himself would have looked with wonder at that sort of audacity. He would have thought, “Well, that’s awfully nice. But...er...I just wrote what I had to write. My exotic modulations, my sudden shifts from minor to major to minor were what I wanted to hear. So I put the notes on paper. And hoped that my circle of friends might like them.”
He wrote for them indeed. Only three of his sonatas were played in his lifetime–and the three sonatas last night were premiered in Carnegie Hall more than a century after they were composed.
Yet all that was forgotten when Ms. Uchida, in habitual black dress swung onto the stage and launched immediately into the music. The three works she played were all completely different–the C Minor Sonata was a bit of Beethoven Sturm und Drang, the A Major was a hyped-up salon piece, and the G Major could have exemplified Schumann’s description of “heavenly length”.
Yet in each, Ms. Uchida performed as if each was a miracle in itself. Her fingers had no problems, her phrasing was perfect. The result, though, was of wonder.
Not, wonder for Mitsuko Uchida. That goes without saying. But wonder and awe for Franz Schubert. And ultimately enlightenment for ourselves.
Ms. Uchida has never been an Olympian figure like Pollini or Brendel. She has studied and interpreted and been preoccupied with different composers at different time. But he work has always been that of an artist ready to change her interpretations to suit her most human mood.
Her Schubert has always been stunning. But last night, she eschewed the sometimes unnerving tensions in order to present the ideas in themselves. And in that gigantic G Major Sonata, she delved almost into mystery. One could barely hear her pianissimos in the first movement, but oh how they developed into what we thought we would be a middle section. Instead, she repeated the opening, this time with a bit more body, more volume. She never avoided the negative measures, but in her work, those measures were only shadows to embrace the warmth from the rest of the movement.
The slow movement was almost ingenuous, almost childlike, while the minuet was near-fragile. As for the rondo-finale, Ms. Uchida was not averse to giving a pause, a fractional rubato to emphasize the return of the main theme.
As for the final eight measures, these were the jewels of the evening. She must have known it too. For she sat for more than ten seconds before allowing the audience to applaud.
The second of the three sonatas was the charmer, of course, an Arcadian work written for a female student. Ms. Uchida paused at times, as if the notes weren’t quite in her mind, but this might have shown that she too can get carried away with her own performance!
The opening of the concert was in Beethoven’s most Promethean key, C minor, and she made the most of the Beethoven power. From the first notes, she seemed like an artist driven, yet hardly driven to distraction. Even in the finale, a tarantella of almost inhuman speed, she allowed the notes to dictate her work. And if her velocity sometimes slowed down in the hand-crossing, this was hardly a problem.
All that it demonstrated was an artist melding her own so human touch with the modestly inhuman mind of its creator.
The encore? It was audacious, uncharacteristically humorous, it was the tiniest bagatelle, it was...Arnold Schoenberg?? Yes indeed, the one-minute-long movement from his Five Little Pieces.
We ended, therefore, not with the “amen” of the Schubert G Major Sonata, but a kind of “Hey, it’s been fun. See ya soon”. Which believe it or not, is this Friday with three more Schubert sonatas.
Perhaps God really does exist.