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Games Poets Play

New York
Stern Auditorium, Carnegie Hall
05/09/2008 -  
Franz Schubert: Sonata in c minor, D.958
György Kurtág: From “Játékok”: Antiphone in F-Sharp Major” (Book II); Tumble-Bunny; Portrait 3; Dirge 2; Play with Infinity (Book III)
Johann Sebastian Bach: Contrapunctus No. 1 from “The Art of Fugue”, BWV 1080 – Sarabande from French Suite Number 5, BWV 816
Robert Schumann: Symphonic Etudes, Op. 13

Mitsuko Uchida (Piano)

Mitsuko Uchida began her career by being fastidious, elegant, a fine technician and an artist who seemed destined to play glorious chamber music, though nothing much in this century. But like the very best players from Asia, she quickly blossomed into an artist combining strength and taste, a respect for the old but an openness for the new, and with a personal (though never idiosyncratic) stamp on everything she plays.

Ms. Uchida is still one of the great Schubertians, in the Brendel tradition. But her recoding of Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto is more accessible, more lyrical than anything previous made. In this recital, the two works which sandwiched the recital were, predictably, Schubert and Schumann. But in between was Bach – which she rarely plays – and the Hungarian composer Kurtág, who, at the age of 82, will be making his very first appearance in America next year.

Even more adventurous, Ms. Uchida intertwined the Bach with the Kurtág, playing eight pieces in 14 minutes. That was natural with the Kurtág works, which were all taken from his several – hundred bagatelles in Játékok, the Magyar for “games” But these were not children’s games: they were games with very strict rules. No work was more than a minute long, but the rules—thank heaven – did not come from Anton Webern’s calculus. Rather Antiphony was exactly that, little scales which whizzed along against each other. Tumble-Bunny was yes, a funny piece which “fell down”. And Play With Infinity was so distant as to be almost unheard until the last whispers at the bottom of the piano.

How did these “harmonize” with the opening of Art of the Fugue and a slow saraband. A logician would say that all music is like a game, with composers setting the rules. But that begs the question. The real answer is that the works were all lyrical, sensitive, immaculately played.

Ms Uchida rarely plays Bach, perhaps because it is such an inner experience. Yet nothing was internal in her playing, which was frankly gorgeous.

There was another rarity here, her rare and forceful playing of Schubert’s penultimate C Minor Piano Sonata. As expected, the sounds were sonorous, the finger work perfect. But Ms. Uchida understands grades of emotion. Repeated phrases were each given different emphases, the sometimes unclear opening themes were given a gradual clarity. The second movement showed her at her most poetic best, and the finale was more than a hop-and-jump: it was a series of emotions. Some say that the minuet is out of place, but Ms. Uchida put it right in place, which was never a dance, but always dark, never quite out in the open.

Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes were grand, but I will always remember one “Uchida moment”. In the seventh variation, the series of 32nd-note rolls usually command the section. The pianist here took those very inner voices, and turned them virtually into a chorale without every losing the beat of Schumann’s top notes.

After one Schubert encore, we had two joys: First, that she will be playing again next Saturday. And second, that we had memories of unusual groupings, and unerring beauty.

Harry Rolnick



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