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Reflections in a Golden Ear

New York
Carnegie Hall
11/22/1999 -  
Frederic Chopin: Sonata # 2
Anton Webern: Variations, Op. 27
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio in B Minor
Franz Schubert: Sonata in D Major, D850

Mitsuko Uchida (piano)

Of all of the instruments, the piano has the potential for the most introspective of performances, allowing a recitalist to prepare a totally personal program without any need of coordination with collaborators. Sitting alone in one’s music room with only the keyboard for company can produce the most intellectual approach to a work of music and it is not too much of an exaggeration to directly relate the personal qualities of a tactile pianistic experience with the creation of most of the greatest works in the history of Western music. Mitsuko Uchida is one of a very small circle of keyboard artists (perhaps as small as only herself and Mauricio Pollini among those alive today) who contemplate the architecture of a piece of music to the degree wherein they can project new meanings on the classics simply by willing their own shared conceptions with the spirits of the composers onto an appreciative public. Like stumbling onto a Tibetan monastery during prayers, the listeners are privy to the innermost sanctum of that holy realm which is pure musical thought. Last night’s recital was less entertainment than sacred ritual.

Ms. Uchida began with a spirited reading of the first two movements of the Chopin. Her fingers had no problems navigating the keyboard at the supersonic speed that she chose however our simply mortal ears had difficulty in keeping up with her. I found myself concentrating on the previous note and this led to a disconcerting confusion of overtonal pitches in my mind’s ear and I would need to hear this breakneck conception again before I could either bless or condemn it. But when she came with great humility to the famous funeral march there was no longer any doubts as to her magnificent conception. Uchida built this movement like a Bruckner symphony, beginning in pure reverence and progressing to a level of development that was amazingly spiritual. I have heard this movement performed magnificently before of course (by Rubinstein in particular) but never with such a sense of structure, making me rethink the intellectual abilities of this seemingly purely emotional composer.

The Webern was also revelatory for me. Again I have heard this work a lot (at least within the limits of second Viennese programming frequency) but this performance was the first which made me appreciate this difficult piece as variations. Ms. Uchida’s amazingly light touch was perfect for the tiny wisps of musical matter that are the essence of the master from Mittersill.

But it was in her performance of the Mozart that Ms. Uchida distinguished herself as perhaps the most talented pianist alive today. From first note to last I was transfixed with her ability to communicate the underlying angst that is ultimately what makes Mozart so relevant at the end of the millenium. I can’t remember breathing throughout this journey into the innermost psyche of the greatest of all composers but I suppose that I must have since I’m still here able to write about it. Of course my abilities to relate the experience are significantly inferior to the experience itself and I am simply in awe of Ms. Uchida’s ability to take a familiar work and present it as if we were all attending a world premiere performance. I felt that I should remove my shoes before re-entering the hall after intermission.

This feeling was reinforced by yet another amazing performance. Schubert’s sonatas are some of the most difficult to perform in the entire literature because he has the uncanny ability to take a strict metronomic form which exists in linear time and create the impression that all time has ceased to exist. The ideal performance of Schubert should find the listener totally lost at any given point, not even aware of which movement is being played. Uchida conveyed this timelessness by subtle variations in dynamics, judicious use of rubato and a very slow performance of the second movement. Her playful reading of the little dance at the end was charming and the final reprise, played with quiet dignity, was transporting.

Many concerts at Carnegie are sold out, but for Ms. Uchida an additional large grouping of seats was placed on the stage. This was a good thing, for a performance this enlightening should be heard by as many of the faithful as possible.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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