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Up Close and Personal

New York
Carnegie Hall
04/27/2001 -  
Claude Debussy: Images, Book I
Franz Schubert: Moments musicaux
Frederic Chopin: Polonaise Op. 40, No. 2; Sonata # 3

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

One method of determining the difference between a great performance and a merely very good one is to question whether the listener has learned anything new about the music from it. The truly great artists, Joseph Szigeti, for example, or Rudolf Serkin in pianism, always left their audience edified and aspects of the repertoire suddenly revealed. Another quality which separates the master from the craftsman is the willingness and the courage to expose their own personal psyche and soul to public scrutiny, to tell something new and deeper about the music through laying their own sensibilities naked before us. Such an artist was Maria Callas or, in pianism, Glenn Gould. Performers of this maverick breed walk a thin tightrope between success and failure, their very effort to do the seemingly impossible the cornerstone of their performing technique, and the audience’s heart is in its collective mouth as it stares in wonder, awestruck by the challenge (even if it fails). But it is rare for a performer to possess both of these qualities: plumbing both the depths of musical meaning and of personal emotion. Such a performer is Mitsuko Uchida.

Ms. Uchida is concentrating on Schubert these days, producing an amazing series of CD’s to worldwide acclaim. These sonatas are some of the most difficult pieces in the repertoire. I heard Emmanuel Ax discussing recently that he felt that only now at this point in his career could he approach them for the first time. What was revelatory about Uchida’s reading of the Moments musicaux was that these are not individual aural vignettes but rather a coherent whole, a Schubert sonata in six movements. The individual pieces of the set are often excerpted, whether as short concert works or encores, but listening to Uchida play them as a unit revealed the architectural and harmonic cohesion of a superbly crafted symphony, the idea of ripping one of the movements out as a bleeding chunk momentarily abhorrent. Her wanderings into the maze of the Andantino communicated a sense of being magically adrift, hopelessly and yet pleasantly lost in a world without linear time or physical space (Ax’s stated formula for Schubertian success). Her phrasing is always personal, if not idiosyncratic. The famous main theme of the short Allegro moderato was offered up in an entirely new way, the sixth and seventh notes (and the repeated eighth and ninth) pronounced not as a Western diphthong but rather a Japanese enunciation of two distinct vowels (not 1..2..345..67..89 but rather 1..2..345.., the effect immediately jarring and pleasurably unsettling. One experiences the aftershocks of great quantities of thought in an Uchida recital.

The dramatic aspects of the Polonaise were laid out for us as a signpost along the way of this remarkable genius’ traversal of the Chopin Sonata. Here she narrated a novel large in scope and intricate in detail. Her way of revealing her personal emotions was by introducing positively outrageous portions of rubato, the elongated periods between notes deliciously excruciating. Chopin opened the door for this type of interpretation but few have ever entered so confidently. Mademoiselle races through the livelier movements (I still remember her breakneck Chopin 2 last season) in order to more deeply emphasize the slow and thoughtful (or, in the case of the Second, the funereal). It is a thrilling ride for us all, punctuated this night by those death-defying pauses, as if the high wire performer had leaned just a little too far to one side. Surprisingly, there were a good number of mistaken notes in this performance, perhaps an aspect of the nature of her performing style, but not typical of one of her live recitals. The opening Debussy was so technically masterful, the intensity of the finger dexterity leaving one with the impression that there was indeed no technique at all, simply liquid music emanating naturally from the keyboard, that the fudginess of the Chopin was a tad disappointing. But what was more important was the shared sense that we were all let in on new secrets about this music, that we were all that much closer to a great artist, admitted into the inner sanctum of a complex mind and heart, that each audience member could say in future, “well, I heard Uchida perform that!”

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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