Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Uchida: D 958, 959, 960

Sadly not like this
Musikverein, 14/02/2012

Schubert: Piano Sonatas in C minor, A major, B flat major, D 958-60

To put a question which occupied my thoughts for much of this recital in the bluntest of terms: can someone please explain to me what has happened to Mitsuko Uchida? Prior to yesterday evening, which was rather a mess, with muddy, imprecise, mannered playing, I hadn’t seen her in recital for three or four years, when she was her usual outstanding self. Let us hope it was merely an off night.
Uchida seemed to recognise as much herself: she swerved rather inelegantly to omit the repeat of D 959/I’s exposition (this may be common trilogy practice and one of the many reasons why I never took to Brendel’s Schubert, but it’s not like Uchida and all other repeats were observed). A wise decision, on balance, as that exposition had not gone at all well: overpedalled and poorly balanced chords at the start with the first bottom A ungainly placed and the second too soft to register; oddly measured triplets which lost pulse, almost paralyzing the tempo; the counterstatement which unpacks the opening theme extravagantly overemphasized in the left hand, horribly clipped in the right. The second subject had the beginnings of some promising voicing, but the strange triplets made a distracting return – I appreciate that this sonata advances illusions on many fronts, above all in matters formal and tonal, but honourable as an anti-metrical conviction is, we were only reminded of how badly the suspension of barlines can sometimes backfire. Uchida went into full Hammerklavier mode for the second transition, which I suppose is not uncommon, but the correlation between this and the earlier transitional material which it develops was distorted beyond all recognition, which takes some doing.

The development section was full of similar non sequiturs and I could go on. In all three sonatas legato was patchy and the playing full of slips. I would say, after getting a seat upgrade from a lady who left at the interval, complaining bitterly that Uchida had ‘kein Herz’, that her C minor material in D 959/I’s development was expressively wrought, and all the more wrenching on its tonic return for not being overstated the first time. There seemed to be a balance here lacking elsewhere, between thought-out interpretation and lyric impulse, and this moment recalled D 958 more prominently, as it can do most convincingly in the right hands, than I’ve heard for a long time.

Another poor first movement afflicted the C minor sonata: rhythmically not quite as wayward as D 959, though yet more interesting voice leading ideas were prematurely jettisoned and the development section sounded like a real struggle. The silver lining to both sonatas was that Uchida can still turn in a revelatory slow movement: D 958’s only casting a brief look back to Beethoven before turning to Bruckner in an absorbing foreshadowing of his sui generis harmonic and motivic practices; D 959’s quite self-contained (perhaps just as well), with the intriguing gestural idea of putting some distance between statement and counterstatement through touch and projection, not that I understood the discursive point, if any, she was making, but the spatiality of the pianism here – of making things sound entfernt and slowly bringing them closer – was remarkable. D 960’s wasn’t so special, the mood having been pre-empted by a bleak reading of the first movement’s development section, which, contra Adorno’s image of Schubert, suggested an alienation between subject and object and banished the possibility of consolation. The only third movement which stood out was part of D 959’s Trio: the hand-crossing was managed with great dexterity and produced very soft notes at the top which glistened exquisitely. Fourth movements across the three sonatas tended towards the garbled side and though things weren’t as bad as at the beginning, it was worrying to hear Uchida sound so inarticulate.

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