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Seen and Heard Recital Review

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MR BOULEZ: Boulez, Schubert, Beethoven Mitsuko Uchida (piano), Royal Festival Hall, Wednesday March 23rd, 2005 (CC)

The title of this review (the lack of exclamation mark is correct) comes from Uchida’s own introduction to her recital. The inclusion of Boulez’ Notations (themselves a healthy sixty years old, having been written in 1945), to mark the composer/conductor’s eightieth, might seem a departure in repertoire terms for Uchida, but if it was (who knows what she plays behind closed doors) it was a massively fruitful one.

The audience, I believe, disagreed. Not in the quality of applause, but in the plethora of coughs and shuffles that interrupted the concentration (there was an announcement at the beginning of the second half, entreating the audience to shut the f**k up). After all, concentration is paramount upon the qualities the listener must possess to even begin to appreciate Boulez’ workings.

The twelve Notations only last ten minutes in total. Each Notation is twelve bars long, all using twelve-note techniques. Neat. But any accusations of slavish mathematicism were instantly negated by Uchida’s way with the first (‘Fantasque – Modéré). With Uchida, one can clearly hear and follow the line, however disjunct the intervals may be. Her affinity with the music of Schoenberg suddenly seemed very obvious. How sweet it was to see Uchida smile after the driving rhythms (successfully negotiated) of the second; and how moving to hear the beauty inherent in the harmonies of the eleventh (‘Scintillant’). The ‘lointain-calme’ Ninth, wonderfully distant, tested the nerve of the audience (as did, probably, the obsessive nature of the fourth, rendered unapologetically here). Only the twelfth (‘puissant et âpre’ – ‘powerful and fierce’) needed more grit and – well – sheer volume. It was a privilege to hear this. Pollini brought Stockhausen to the Festival Hall, now Uchida brings Stockhausen’s once-mate Boulez. Light at the end of the tunnel, maybe.

The first-half’s coupling was Schubert’s two-movement C major Sonata, D840 (the so-called ‘Relique’). On paper at least, Schubert following Boulez might imply some sort of ‘homecoming’, a welcome return to the snuggly world of tonality. As it turned out that was not the idea at all. The austerity of the sonata’s bare opening spoke of the seriousness of Uchida’s reading, as did the magnificently shaded accompaniment to the ‘second subject’. Obsessive rhythmic figures revealed Schubert’s dark side to the fore. Still, at least the sight of the term ‘C major’ in the booklet inspired the audience to silence in the first movement. Uchida brought a surprising raw power to the louder dynamics and, if her concentration was less than her best earlier on, it reached its full level as the movement progressed.

If the first movement was meant as a Schubertian reaction to Boulez, an attempt to locate some unexpected common ground, the second movement’s porcelain delicacy and interior world seemed a cushion before the distinctly more exterior world of the Hammerklavier’s explosive first movement.

Beethoven’s Op. 106 is not generally seen as feminine territory, although there is a famous recording by Maria Yudina (last seen to my knowledge on Arlecchino ARL04), perhaps because it seems to embody the extremes of the masculine Beethoven in its heroic struggles. The first challenge is the very opening. Uchida’s solution was novel. She elongated the anacrusis, moving her right hand over the left for the low B flat. But there were more surprises… fast quaver passages threatened to get carried away with themselves and fortes could lead to awkward articulation (Uchida seemed distinctly happier in the lower dynamic levels). Interruptive gestures were under-played and accuracy was severely compromised.

No gap at all between the first two movements, a decision perhaps explained by Uchida’s fast and furious way with the Scherzo, the first movement’s first cousin rather than juxtaposed neighbour. The beautifully judged triplet accompaniments were not only perfect tonally, but eminently easily ignitable. Little break between the Scherzo and the huge slow movement either – could this be the world’s first entirely segued Hammerklavier?

The Adagio could have been darker in hue. The beat was definitely quaver-based, yet this was not hugely slow. And expressive though this was, it was difficult to avoid the impression that Uchida was playing as if it was Schubert. The highlights along the way – gorgeous treble and bass dialogue, superbly together chording, jewel-like treble – did not conspire together to make an entirely convincing whole. The infamous fugal finale showed Uchida’s daring. No compromises regarding speed at all, great semiquaver definition and an organ-like bass all made the listener aware of the radical nature of Beethoven’s score.

In October 2003 I referred to Uchida’s Opp. 109-111, essentially, as work in progress. The same, it appears, applies to her Op. 106.

Colin Clarke

Further Listening:

Schubert: Uchida, Philips 454 453-2
Beethoven: Pollini (Sonatas Nos. 28-21). DG The Originals 449 740-2; Historical: Sonatas Nos. 27-29, Schnabel Naxos Historical 8.110762



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