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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Tales of Schumann

ROBERT SCHUMANN’S MENTAL VOLATILITY worked its way into the music he wrote not in a stormy Wagnerian way but as something that agitated in the heart of his romantic-era voice. His piano works erupt in storms of thick harmony, then lay back for the sparest of melodic sighs. His Fantasie in C, Op. 17, seems sometimes to boil with rage, even as that rage shimmers into exultation. Release yourself to the music and you’re buffeted along an emotional switchback that leaves you, as the final section eases to its end, drained and yet hopeful.

How extreme should those extremes be rendered? If pianist Mitsuko Uchida’s recent Schenectady performance is any guide, they can be contained within a context that never punishes the keyboard, and is all the more effective for that restraint. We’re asked to listen with 19th-century ears, and, once we surrender to that restraint, we enjoy an intensity of feeling rendered all the more intense by the claustrophobia of it.

Uchida performed as part of the Union College Concert Series, and she has reputation enough to inspire a long line of restive patrons to start forming an hour before the show, just filling the hall before it started.

And it started, almost with a whisper, with Mozart, his Piano Sonata in C, K. 545, the bane of all beginners because piano teachers think it’s simple. It’s not. Not when you witness a performance like this.

You know the opening theme: For many years it represented the idea of classical music in popular media. A C-major triad over an Alberti bass in the first measure, a leading tone over a V7 chord that resolves even before the measure’s end. It’s Mozart’s “To be or not to be,” a phrase so familiar that its reciters must quail in anticipation.

Not so Uchida. Her fingers melted onto the keys as she coaxed that movement to life, quiet and crisp, its dynamic restraint complementing the momentum of the piece. Just as you forget that you’re hearing Shakespeare’s most famous speeches when a great actor tackles “Hamlet,” so too was there an added transparency about Uchida’s Mozart. We heard music, not overeager history.

After the busy first movement, the second seems like a wisp. It’s a thoughtful response to what came before, casting a single-voiced melody over a (much slower) Alberti, and it’s in the key of G, the dominant note of the opening movement, subtly playing with our ear’s expectations.

Uchida’s approach put me in mind of the glorious old recordings by Walter Gieseking, whose Mozart, untroubled by the soon-to-come flurry of historically informed performance strictures, included sly interpretive elements that never got in the way. When Uchida pauses at the edge of a phrase, or eases its finish with a rallentando, it still sounds like Mozart is speaking.

The sunny finish of the sonata’s concluding rondo set the stage for Schumann’s “Kreisleriana,” a multi-movement work whose movements also are episodic, even as the entirety of it maintains deliberate relationships of key (turning not on the expected dominant, but the more mysterious mediant, the third tone of the scale) and thematic material.

Inspired by a character created by E.T.A. (“Tales of”) Hoffmann, the piece mirrors the mood swings shared by the fictional Kreisler and the actual Schumann, posing a challenge for the pianist (who, in Schumann’s day, largely avoided the piece): how to convey the continuity that lurks within?

Uchida gave us the sense of struggle that opens the piece, a struggle that climbs melodically before suddenly turning into a placid stream. The second of the work’s eight sections reverses this, beginning in a hymnlike mood before turning triumphant. Thus it proceeds, the contrasts leapfrogging, the key relationships adding a veil of mystery. Uchida’s stunning technical mastery removed that aspect as obstacle, despite such challenges as the frequent hand-crossings demanded; her ability to parse dynamics within a seemingly small realm revealed a wealth of sparkling detail. Her sense of time is so assured and well-thought-out that she established continuity not only in the tempo relationships among the work’s sections but also as she segued from each to each (carefully raising a hand to still inappropriate applause).

“Sonatina facile,” a recent piece by Jörg Widmann (who also performed as clarinetist in a recital with Uchida on April 1) paid tribute to Mozart’s Sonata in C by aping its structure but casting its themes as if haltingly remembered on an overcast day. It was a tuneful yet disquieting journey through that bygone world, more about mood and color than the tunes themselves, sometimes jazzy, sometimes drifting like a distant radio station. The trills in the Mozart sonata turned into more sustained uncertainties in Widmann’s re-casting, while Uchida’s mastery of the piece contributed to its satisfying cumulative effect.

By the time she got to Schumann’s Fantasie, the big work of the second half, she owned us. Could there be further surprise? On the technical end, there were the hemiolas the composer sent her way, tricky three-against-two timings that were crystalline in her hands. And the overall structure of the piece itself, one of many love songs Schumann wrote to his adored Clara, has its storm in the second section and a radiantly slow finish in the third.

The single encore was the slow movement of another Mozart Sonata in C, this one K. 330. It was slower and more wistful than her recording of the piece, clearly in thrall to the spell of the just-finished Schumann, and all the more powerful for being so.

Mitsuko Uchida, pianist
Union College Memorial Chapel, March 27, 2017

The Alt, 5 April 2017

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