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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonatas: No. 28 in A, Op. 101 (1816) [22:23]; No. 29 in B flat, Op. 106, 'Hammerklavier' (1817-1818) [46:18]
Mitsuko Uchida (piano)
rec. La Salle de Musique, Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, 28 April-2 May 2007. DDD
PHILIPS 4758662 [68:51]
Experience Classicsonline

Reporting on Uchida's Hammerklavier in June 2005, I found it to be very much a work-in-progress. I had come to a similar conclusion about her performances of the last three sonatas in October 2003. One would have hoped that setting her interpretations down on disc would have taken her a step forward, but there were still reservations to be made about her Philips CD of these final works.
The two Sonatas here are presented in numerical order, so the Hammerklavier crowns the listening experience. It is Op. 101 that suits Uchida's temperament better though. The leisurely opening belies, perhaps, the bilingual tempo indication - 'Etwas lebhaft und mit der innigsten Empfindung/Allegretto, ma non troppo' - emphasising the allegretto part the more. Uchida could justifiably be accused of loving some passages too much, such is her tendency to linger. Yet the second movement positively explodes onto the scene, as if it has a point to make. A pity the tension drops. One is left admiring Uchida's way with the more whispered moments whilst egging her on to more extroversion in the fortes. Indeed, it is in the great opening of the third movement that Uchida is at her finest, bringing to mind the world of the slow movements of the late string quartets. Later, one can sit agape at her finger definition, but she still sits some way away from a real communion with late Beethovenian thought.
I commented on the slow anacrusis that opened Uchida's live Hammerklavier; compare to Pollini's lightning gesture! The same criticism applies here the dynamism inherent in the work is muted from the off. In the movement that follows there are myriad details that bewitch the ear. Balancing this, though, is a certain loss of momentum, particularly around the six- to seven-minute mark, where things become distinctly leaden. The rhythmic impetus that so marks the Pollini DG account is missing here, and the reading suffers as a result.
Uchida's technique is exemplary in the Scherzo, however, where she fearlessly addresses all of Beethoven's challenges. True, there is not the patrician ease of Gilels (DG), but this is nevertheless admirable playing. Clearly Uchida feels most at home in the huge slow movement, which she lets unfold at its own pace. 'Unfold' seems the mot juste here it is the aural equivalent of watching a slow-motion blossoming of a flower. From this expansive terrain, the finale slowly emerges. Uchida's transition to this famous fugue is masterly; the highlight of her reading, in fact. As the various gestures struggle to find a fitting continuation, Uchida really relishes the sense of exploration. When the fugue itself arrives, one cannot but admire Uchida's finger strength. Again, though, there is a 'but'. Some passages emerge as near-inchoate as forward direction once again suffers. The granitic greatness of late Beethoven is only approximated, meaning that the balm that appears around 8'20 has a diminished effect.

It is interesting that Naxos, when reissuing the Schnabel HMV cycle of Beethoven Sonatas, coupled these two sonatas but found space for Op. 90 as well. Of course Schnabel in 1935 is less accurate than Uchida in 2007, to put it mildly, but his formidable intellect and his remarkable ear conspired towards an edge-of-the-seat but nevertheless lasting impression.
The recording is a fine one. There is plenty of space around the piano, and yet it retains its intimacy. The piano itself is toned in exemplary fashion. Misha Donat's booklet notes are both articulate and detailed.
A mixed reception, then. Uchida is never less than fascinating, but alas these readings cannot sit in the pantheon of the greats.
Colin Clarke


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